The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective
BLM Logo


The demise of the Pony Express and the Overland Mail Service marked the end of an era in western history. The physical remains of both services are extant on public lands in western Utah and are being preserved, interpreted and continually studied by the Bureau of Land Management's Salt Lake and Richfield districts.

Over the past few years, and especially during the 1976 Bicentennial, substantial Bureau efforts have been devoted to the protection and interpretation of the Pony Express Trail in Utah. Attention was focused on the West Desert near Salt Lake City, and included the Overland Mail route. Research, however, produced data on a wide area and that information also is presented in this monograph.

The discovery of gold in California coupled with the westward migration of thousands of easterners and the creation of settlements in such frontiers as the Salt Lake Valley, established the need for more efficient and faster communications with the East. Three notable figures of that era — Alexander Majors, William H. Russell and William B. Waddell — claimed that a pony rider service could transport mail from the east in only nine to ten days. With the establishment of the Pony Express in April 1860, their claim became a reality. Via the telegraph from the east coast to St. Joseph, Missouri, then by Pony Express, communication to California was accomplished in about nine days. This is in marked contrast to the three months previously required.

Preceeding the Express, George Chorpenning had established a mail and freight service in 1851 — the "Jackass Mail." This was the first U.S. Mail Contract for service between Salt Lake City and San Francisco. To the east of Salt Lake City, the first mail contract was awarded to Samuel H. Woodson in 1850. Successors included William F. McGraw, 1854-1857; Hiram Kimball, 1857; S. B. Mills, 1857-1858; Hockaday and Liggett, 1858-1859. [2] Russell, Majors and Waddell purchased the mail and transportation obligations from Hockaday and Liggett in 1859, and from George Chorpenning in 1860, and established the Central Overland, California and Pike's Peak Express Company (see Figure 2). The Overland Mail Company continued operations until its contract was lost to Ben Holladay in 1862. [3] In 1870, shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Overland Mail Company changed its route to be adjacent to the railroad which was north of the Great Salt Lake.

Figure 2. Chorpenning and Hockaday Routes. (click on image for a PDF version)

At the initiation of Express operations, Alexander Majors recorded that:

There were already stations properly distanced on our line between St. Joseph and Salt Lake, but we had to relocate the route between Salt Lake and Sacramento which we had taken over from George Chorpenning and build stations its entire length. [4]

Chorpenning's stations averaged 70 miles apart. Kate B. Carter says:

Stage stations already established were too far apart for horse travel, and no intermediate, or swing stations, were built between the home stations where horses could be quickly exchanged. (by 1861) there were 56 stations marked on the Egan, or Overland Trail map, covering a distance of 658 miles. [5]

This represented the distance between Salt Lake City and the California border (Yanks Station). Stations averaged 11 and 3/4 miles apart.

According to rider Nick Wilson:

The home stations were from 40 to 60 miles apart and one man's ride was from one station to another. Between the home stations were other stations where horses could be changed.

They were referred to as the "swing stations" and some lasted only one or two months before being shut down due to the completion of the telegraph and the demise of the Pony Express. Rider William H. Streepler noted "We stationed animals all along between stops (home stations) so we could change and have fresh ones." [6]

The route between Salt Lake City and Robert's Creek (now in Nevada) was under the supervision of Major Howard Egan. [7] Major Egan, of the Nauvoo Legion, came west with Brigham Young's company in 1847. His knowledge of the roadometer (used in measuring distance) undoubtedly aided in his responsibility to lay out the Pony Express stations within his division. [8] In "Pioneering the West" from the Howard R. Egan estate, the noncontract stations of Pass, River Bed, Black Rock, Boyd's and Canyon are named in addition to the identified contract stations. [9] It is of interest to note that Major Egan's two sons both rode for the Pony Express: Howard Ransom and Richard Eurastus (Ras) Egan.

On the first ride the mail from California reached Salt Lake City April 7, 1860, at 7:45 p.m. [10] The mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, arrived in Salt Lake City April 9 at 6:25 p.m. [11] Where the first riders met and passed each other is unknown, but by projecting time and speed (about 8 mph) this must have occurred near Pacific Springs, Wyoming. At the Wyoming passing, one writer indicates the rider going east was Dave, and going west was "Charles McCarty." [12] Some research indicates the rider going east was Thomas Owen King.

George Washington Perkins stated on the first express ride:

My run on that record-breaking ride was 57 miles. We did not have stations then to change our horses. I had to make it with just one horse and I made the run in mighty good time considering the distance, but I killed the poor horse doing it. He was so stiff the next morning we couldn't get him out of the stable. (for later runs) I had a change of mounts every six or eight miles. [13]

The fastest Express ride was a little over seven and one-half days (the average being ten); it carried President Lincoln's Inaugural Message. This meant the horses averaged over ten miles per hour from St. Joseph to Sacramento. Under regular conditions the horses would run about seven or eight miles per hour. In comparison, freight was hauled at about four miles per hour and the stage averaged six.

The 1861 mail contract stations are listed in the following paragraph. Other identified, or more recent stations, are listed in parentheses. All stations reflect locations within the present geographic boundaries of the state of Utah.

The stations are: Needle Rock, Head of Echo Canyon, Half Way, Weber, East Canyon, Wheaton Springs, Mountain Dale, Salt Lake House, Trader's Rest, Rockwell's, Dugout, Camp Floyd, (East Rush Valley), Rush Valley, Point Lookout, (Government Creek), Simpson's Springs, (Riverbed), Dugway, (Blackrock), Fish Springs, (Boyd's), Willow Springs, (Willow Creek), (1863 Canyon), (Canyon), and Deep Creek. At the time of the Pony Express, Utah Territory (see Figures 1 and 3) included some 65 of the 190 stations along the entire route from Pacific Springs, Wyoming to the California border. It was in 1861 that Congress reduced Utah Territory and established Nevada Territory.

Figure 3. Utah Territory - 1860. (click on image for a PDF version)

At the peak of operations, the route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, was made up of about 190 stations, approximately 420 horses, and 80 riders. At 10 to 12 miles per horse and 75 to 125 miles per rider, the mail could be moved 250 miles in 24 hours. This was an efficient and fast service, but it brought about costs greater than income. Financial problems plagued the Pony Express from its inception. This financial burden together with the completion of the telegraph in October 1861, brought an end to the Pony Express. [14]

Intermittent freighting and stage services continued in Utah's West Desert area until the middle 1920's. The famous Lincoln Highway also passed through Utah using portions of the old mail route.

The Pony Express, an important and colorful contributor to the service of the Central Overland, California & Pike's Peak Express Company, was established in 1860 and had succumbed by late 1861. It lasted only about 19 months and was basically a financial failure, but the associated glamour — both fact and fiction — has assured it a large and lasting chapter in the history of the West.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 18-Jan-2008