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 Come Along And Ride This Train

 

The Pony Express 

"Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

That's the ad I answered in May 1860. By the way, my name is Charlie Miller, but everyone called me Broncho Charlie back then. I was 11 years old and it turned out I was the youngest of that pack of "wiry fellows!" But don't let that fool you, I knew horses and with a good pinto under me I could ride like the wind.

Anyway, this new outfit, the Pony Express, had just started up in April. The railroad didn't go coast to coast yet and the telegraph wires weren't strung that far west. The idea was to get mail from St. Louis, Missouri, the last "civilized" metropolis on the edge of the frontier, to Sacramento, California, and finally to the wild and bustling West Coast city of San Francisco. That's really where things were happening. It's true the gold mines were petering out, but silver had just been discovered in Nevada. Business was booming from Carson and Virginia City all the way to San Francisco. Bankers and businessmen needed faster mail service and that's what us Pony Express riders were about - speed!

 

Stagecoaches took 20 days to make the trip, but our team of horses and riders covered the 2,000 miles in 10 days; the time, I don't mind saying!

The Pony Express had purchased 400 horses for starters. They were as fine an assortment of thoroughbreds, mustangs, pintos, and Morgans as you could find. I can attest to the fact that they were chosen for speed, toughness and stamina.

When it came to us "men," none of us was over 120 pounds, but we ranged in age from my 11 years to 40. We numbered 75 in those first days and were selected for our horsemanship, bravery and frankly our ability to endure the exhausting rides without rest or food. To keep up our 10 mile per hour speed we had to travel light, with little or no provisions. There were even some really courageous carriers that rode into hostile Indian Territory. They were expert Indian fighters that knew how to evade capture or survive an attack!

We were tough and we were fast. Each and every day except Sunday, a rider would start out from St. Louis and another from Sacramento with a leather saddlebag full of mail called a "mochilla." Each would ride 75 to 100 miles at break neck speed, changing his sweating horse every 10 to 15 miles. As a rider galloped into the last Pony Express station of his stretch there'd be another mounted Pony Express rider ready to grab the mochilla and take off, leaving his compatriot in the dust of his horse's pounding hooves.

 

Somewhere on the 2000-mile route the St. Louis relay rider would meet up with the one from Sacramento. The mochillas would be exchanged and the riders would turn around with their new mailbags and start the return relay.

I gotta say, it may have been fast, but it sure wasn't cheap to use the Pony Express. In that first year it cost $5 a half ounce! In the second year it was a lot better at $1. So letters and documents were written on really thin paper to keep the weight down. To give you a feel of the times, we made $100 a month and that was top-notch pay 'cause of the risky nature of our work. Regular guys were lucky to make $1 a day.

Looking back, we thought of ourselves as adventurous heroes with tales to tell. We rode our mounts day and night, winter and summer, in every kind of weather and terrain. We boasted of hair-breadth escapes from Indians and robbers, tortuous rides over craggy mountain passes, of freezing in sleet and snow, baking in desert heat, being thrown by horses scared by rattlesnakes - and never being deterred from our mission to deliver the mail in 10 days!

When the telegraph lines reached San Francisco in 1861, there wasn't much need for the Pony Express any more. After only 18 months, our teams were disbanded and we had to find other adventures for ourselves. You may have heard about Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill. They were Pony Express riders who eventually had other well-chronicled claims to fame! As for me, I was the youngest Pony Express rider, ever.

Pony Express Facts

  • The Pony Express was in service from April 3, 1860 to October 24, 1861. 
  • The youngest Pony Express rider on record was 11 years old. His name was Charlie Miller but everyone called him Broncho Charlie. 
  • Remembering that the territories west of Missouri were not all states yet, the Pony Express riders crossed what are the present day states of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada to reach California. 
  • Mail that arrived in Sacramento was transported to San Francisco overnight by boat. 
  • There were approximately 165 Pony Express stations. 
  • Lincoln's Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, reached Sacramento in only 7 days and 17 hours! It was telegraphed from Washington D.C. to Kearney, Nebraska, then taken by Pony Express to Folsom, California, and from there it was telegraphed to Sacramento and finally published. 

 

 

Revised: September 03, 2007

 

 

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