A memorandum from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California can be distributed and read in mere seconds today due to current electronic technology. What a contrast to April 1860, when citizens found it remarkable that a letter made it cross-country between these same two points in less than two weeks because of the Pony Express.
Six months later, in November 1860, news of Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th president of the United States was telegraphed to St. Louis from almost all of the 33 states. The summary of the election was forwarded by telegraph, using Morse Code, to Kearny, Nebraska, the furthest point of the telegraph system. When the victory message was received at the Kearny station a young man jumped onto a pony and headed west to Fort Churchill, Nevada where the election news was telegraphed to Sacramento.
The riders completed the trek to Fort Churchill in a record-breaking six days and the news reached Sacramento the next day by wire. The horsemen were employees of the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, a. k. a., The Pony Express, or just “The Pony.”
Owners William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors relied on the completion of quick deliveries between Missouri and California in order for their company to remain solvent. “Weeks if not months were the norm for coast-to-coast communication.” After riders learned their routes and how to dodge dangers, the 2,000 mile journey was reduced regularly to 10 days.
In today’s economy, the startup cost for the Pony Express would be “over $68 million.” Thousands of ponies and 7,500 oxen were purchased to run the operation. Station masters were employed to monitor the delivery process. And yet, despite the capital costs and the complexity of scheduling, the Pony Express was designed to be only temporary. It operated for only 18 months, until telegraph wires were strung across the continent and Western Union Telegrams became the norm for rapid communication. The railroad soon followed, adding an additional means of sending transcontinental messages. The competition created by the telegrams and trains quickly led to the bankruptcy of the Pony Express.
The author depicts the treacherous nature of the trip between California and Missouri. The riders, with names like “Bronco Charlie” and “Sawed-Off Jim,” encountered crossfire between squabbling settlers in Kansas, ground-pounding bison stampedes, and attacks from hostile Native Americans. DeFelice notes the Pony’s $5 charge for a missive weighing up to half an ounce and describes in detail the procedures for changing ponies, the size of the riders’ mail pouches (mochila) and what the men ate.
“West Like Lightning” is the first major history of the Pony Express that is integrated into the context of the Civil War and other major events of that era. DeFelice traveled the route of “The Pony” to do his research and conveys both the legends and facts of this dangerous service.
This is a wonderful read for Western enthusiasts, as well as for historians. It is light reading about colorful characters and the development of a distinctive means of communication.
William Morrow is the publisher of this indexed, well sourced, 355-page book which includes a colorful folio of photographs of trail sites and legendary riders.