History buffs, equine riders, and postal enthusiasts all have something to celebrate as the 163rd anniversary of the Pony Express is being observed with an almost 2,000-mile ride on horseback from Sacramento, California, to St. Joseph, Missouri.
Say what? Didn’t that end, like, over 160 years ago? Well, yes. In operation for a mere 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express helped tie the country’s two halves together news-wise until the transcontinental telegraph was completed. While brief, today, the early mail line is still very much associated with the Old West.
A single rider could cover more ground much more quickly than a stagecoach or covered wagon. But on June 16, 1860, roughly 10 weeks after the Pony Express began its operations, Congress authorized a bill, which instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidize the development of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River with the Pacific Coast — an even faster means of communication.
The passage of the 1860 bill resulted in the joining of California’s Overland Telegraph Company and the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. While the lines were in the process of being strung, the Pony Express continued in its mission with mail and newspapers faithfully carried back and forth from St. Joseph to Sacramento.
Then, on October 26, 1861, for the first time in the nation’s history, San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City. If you’re good at reading the handwriting on the walls, you’ll have guessed (and correctly) that the historic event was also the death knell for the Pony Express.
Yup, on that day in 1861, the Pony Express was officially terminated, but it wouldn’t be until November that the last of the mail was delivered over the established route.
Even if it had stayed in operation, North America’s first transcontinental railroad began construction in 1863 and was completed by 1869, so the service would have been unnecessary after connecting the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa, with the Pacific Coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay.
Now, the National Pony Express Association, in conjunction with the United States Postal Service, will host the annual ride where 1,500 U.S. postal customers will have their mail delivered to the Midwest in 10 days, the exact same way it was carried from 1860 to 1861.
This is an ad posted in the Sacramento Union, on March 19, 1860:
The undersigned wishes to hire ten or a dozen men, familiar with the management of horses, as hostlers, or riders on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City. Wages $50 per month and found.”
“It’s a big-rooted event in time,” noted USPS spokeswoman Gina M. Segura. “It’s just a great way to keep the history of Sacramento intertwined with the postal service.”
The event was scheduled to begin at the official Pony Express statue set in Old Sacramento at Second and J Streets at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 7, and will continue over 10 days, 24-hours a day, with riders switching off every 10 miles — just like it was done in the old days.
Departing Sacramento at 2 p.m., the first rider will arrive in St. Joseph at around 7:30 p.m. CDT on June 17. According to the National Pony Express Association, 600 riders will take part in the event carrying the traditional mochila (a square leather saddle pouch), just as the original riders did.
Each year, the NPEA, USPS, and fans of history commemorate the event to keep the tradition alive.
“The postal service got involved because the Sacramento postmaster started sending letters of sisterhood to Missouri,” Segura explained. “We thought it would be a fun, unique way to get that across.”
According to Segura, the Sacramento Postal Customer Council began writing the letters of sisterhood three years ago and sending them on the Express. Missouri reciprocated and started sending letters back.
As younger people have taken less of an interest in the history of the overland mail service, NPEA is encouraging anyone desiring to get involved to become a member.
Rider members can traverse the trail on horseback and deliver official mail. Postal customers can send letters via the Express through the NPEA website by filling out an application form. The submission process for 2023 ended in May, but there’s always next year!
Anyone who’d like to follow this year’s progress can do so by visiting NPEA between now and June 17, 2023.
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