The Pony Express Was Short-Lived And Costly

The service only lasted 18 months, but became an important icon of the West

pony express
Watercolor illustration of a pony express rider Corbis

After gold was discovered in California and people rushed to the soon-to-be state, communication across the vastness of America became a pressing priority. As a result, three business men, William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, who held government contracts to deliver military supplies to the West, saw an opportunity to improve mail delivery. On April 14, 1860, the very first mail delivered via the Pony Express reached San Francisco, just 11 days after it left St. Joseph, Mo. That makes today the 155th anniversary of that first ride, a fact that Google remembers with its Doodle

The Pony Express, a chain of horses and riders stretching across the country, built a legacy that lasts today as part of our perception of the classic Wild West. 

“The fact that [the mail] came in 10 days, instead of a month or in a month and a half, that was the excitement,“ Nancy Pope, historian and head curator for the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, told Tess Danielson, writing for the Christian Science Monitor. “In that era, it was suddenly like e-mail was born over letter writing. We don’t have to wait this huge length of time to get that information and it's now coming very, very quickly.”

But the iconic riders only carried the West’s mail for 18 months and was "a financial disaster," Danielson writes. Competition from a national telegraph wire quickly made the riders outdated. 

Plus, "it hemorrhaged money from the first day," author Christopher Corbett told Vox. "It was a bit of a madcap idea from the get-go ... the structure of the business was deeply flawed."

The Pony Express never made a profit because it didn’t manage to secure a government contract for delivering letters, reports Phil Edwards for Vox. Plus, the Paiute War came at a bad time for the fledgling service. Edwards writes:

Some ledgers say the investors lost $200,000 in the venture and only made $90,000 in revenue. As the Postal Museum notes, the business lost up to $30 for every letter it carried.

Still, the audacious idea was enough to capture the imagination of the country. Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West show did much to build up the mythos of the West, claimed he rode for the Pony Express. Dime novels ran with the idea and came up with many fictional adventures for the riders. But even the bare facts were impressive. The riders had to be lean and skilled. They faced harsh weather in an already harsh landscape. Attacks from Native Americans have been exaggerated, but they did happen. Only rarely did mail fail to reach the destination—so-called "interrupted mail" from the Pony Express is rare and valuable. 

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