Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Two:


The Pony Express' first ride on April 3, 1860, and the fanfare of the cheering throngs in St. Joseph and Sacramento has been described so many times with flourishing detail [82] that this study will provide only the highlights of the dramatic event. These depictions do not always agree on the details of the event, so the following description is a composite of those views.

St. Joseph to Sacramento Ride

The basic description of the first run from St. Joseph centers around three elements: the arrival of the mail from the East, the staging of the first ride, and the identity of the first pony rider.

Despite careful planning, when the day of the big event arrived, the initial run did not occur without some difficulties. First, the Hannibal and St. Joseph train arrived late. Scheduled to arrive in St. Joseph in the late afternoon (5:00 p.m.), it did not arrive until nightfall. Apparently, the letters from Washington, D.C., and New York were delayed in Detroit, where the mail pouch had missed its connection by two hours. Hearing of the delay, J.T.K. Haywood, Superintendent of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad ordered a special locomotive with one coach to carry the pouch directly to St. Joseph. Notwithstanding this effort and after apparently setting company speed records, it still arrived two hours late. From the train station at Olive and Seventh and Eighth Streets, the pouch containing "49 letters, 5 private telegrams, and some papers for San Francisco and intermediate points" was then delivered to the starting point. This point was at one of several locations, most likely either the Pony Express stables on Penn Street, or the Pattee House on Twelfth and Penn Streets, the location of the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company office. [83]

Before the mail pouch was delivered to the first rider, time was taken out for ceremonies and several speeches. First, Mayor M. Jeff Thompson gave a brief speech on the significance of the event for St. Joseph. Then William H. Russell and Alexander Majors addressed the gala crowd about how the Pony Express was just a "precursor" to the construction of a transcontinental railroad. At the conclusion of all the speeches, approximately 7:15 p.m., Russell turned the mail pouch over to the first rider. A cannon fired, the large assembled crowd cheered, and the rider dashed to the landing at the "foot of Jules Street where the ferry boat Denver, alerted by the signal cannon, waited to carry the horse and rider across the Missouri River to Elwood, Kansas Territory. The identity of the first rider still remains a puzzle. Most sources agree that the rider was Johnson William "Billy" Richardson rather than Johnny Frye of Wathena, Kansas, as some believed. However, in his reminiscences, Richardson denied this honor. [84]

The first rider from the East reached Salt Lake City at 6:45 p.m. on April 9, 1860. ">The Deseret News commented upon his arrival that much credit was "due the enterprising and persevering originators of this enterprise and, although a telegraph is very desirable, we feel well satisfied with this achievement for the present." [85]

The mail pouch reached Carson City about 2:30 p.m. on April 12th. [86] From Carson City it traveled over the Sierra Nevadas to Placerville, California, where crowds gathered, guns fired, and speeches were made. From here, the pony sped on to Sacramento, where, according to one newspaper account:

The Legislature adjourned in honor of the event, while the streets were draped with banners, ladies thronged the balconies, and crowds blocked up the sidewalks along the streets through which the pony was expected to pass. As he came galloping along, followed by a wild cavalcade of men, who had gone out on the Plains to meet him, the city echoed with the ringing of bells, booming of cannon, and the long-continued shouts of the multitude. [87]

At about midnight or 1:00 a.m., on April 14, 1860, the Pony Express from St. Joseph reached San Francisco via Sacramento and the steamboat Antelope. Prior to its arrival, at "every man's dinner table, men, women and children talked pony," the crowds getting out their watches to calculate and speculate the Pony Express' rate per mile. [88] Upon its arrival in San Francisco, the pony rider was escorted from the steamer to the heart of the city where "a great throng roared an enthusiastic welcome, the band played 'See the Conquering Hero Comes,' bonfires were lighted, speechmakers 'studied their points,' and a riotous celebration continued until nearly morning." [89]

San Francisco and Sacramento to St Joseph Ride

The sending of the first rider eastward from San Francisco and Sacramento was celebrated with as much gaiety as the festivities held in St. Joseph, Missouri. In San Francisco, on the appointed day, a substantial crowd gathered outside the Alta Telegraph office, where the firm's agent was located. According to one historian, San Francisco was decked out in flags and bunting for the occasion.

Thousands of people came in from the fields and neighboring camps and many joined the busy throng and helped participate in the exercises. Business was suspended and the city specially decorated for the occasion. Across the principal streets floral arches were built; cannons boomed from surrounding hills; brass bands played enlivening music, and the earnest speeches from state officials and local orators helped make the event one of the proudest days ever celebrated on the Pacific coast. [90]

At 4:00 p.m. "a clean-limbed, hardy little nankeen-colored pony" sped away with the mail pouch, which read "Overland Pony Express" to the steamer Antelope that waited to carry the express mail up river to Sacramento. After a ten-hour ride, the steamer reached Sacramento in a hard rainstorm at approximately 2:00 a.m. Because of the lateness and the weather, no "reception committee" greeted it, except the express agent and the first rider eastward. The pouch was given to Harry Roff, who sped off into the night. [91]

In his memoir, Alexander Majors narrated the following description of the ride along the Pony Express route east of Sacramento:

The day of the First Start, the 3rd of April, 1860, at noon, Harry Roff, mounted on a spirited half-breed broncho, started from Sacramento on his perilous ride, and covered the first twenty miles, including one change, in fifty-nine minutes. On reaching Folson [sic], he changed again and started for Placerville, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountain, fifty-five miles distant. There he connected with "Boston," who took the route to Friday's Station, crossing the eastern summit of the Sierra Nevada. Sam Hamilton next fell into line, and pursued his way to Genoa, Carson City, Dayton, Reed's Station, and Fort Churchill—seventy five miles. The entire run, 185 miles, was made in fifteen hours and twenty minutes, and included the crossing of the western summits of the Sierras, through thirty feet of snow. This seems almost impossible, and would have been, had not pack trains of mules and horse kept the trail open. Here "Pony Bob"—Robert H. Haslam—took the road from Fort Churchill to Smith's Creek, 120 miles distant through hostile Indian country. [92]

Smith's Creek was one of the last stations belonging to the western-most division of the Pony Express. Majors' account was largely accurate, except that Fort Churchill was founded August 7, 1860, during the Pyramid Lake War, four months after the inauguration of the Pony Express. [93]

The second western-most division of the Pony Express ran from Smith's Creek to Salt Lake City. According to Alexander Majors, the rider:

Jay G. Kelley rode from Smith's Creek to Ruby Valley, Utah, 116 miles; from Ruby Valley to Deep Creek, H. Richardson, 105 miles; from Deep Creek to Rush Valley, old camp Floyd, eighty miles; from Camp Floyd to Salt Lake City, fifty miles; George Thatcher the last end. [94]

The first pony rider from the west reached Salt Lake City on April 7, 1860. [95] From Salt Lake City, the first pony rider from California reached St. Joseph on May 14, 1860, and was "awarded an enthusiastic welcome." The local paper described the event as follows:

The Pony Express arrived in our city at five o'clock yesterday afternoon, just ten days from San Francisco. The event was duly and grandly celebrated last night by fire-works, firing of cannon, parade of the military, and illumination of Market square. . . .Twenty, or even ten years ago, the man who would have suggested such an event would have been termed a lunatic. Hurrah, then, for the Pony Express and its enterprising proprietors. Long may they live, and soon be the time when the "Iron Horse" shall supersede the Pony. [96]

Eastern newspapers also noted the celebrations and rejoicings at the success of the first Pony Express run. For instance, the New York Times stated that St. Joseph was "illuminated," and that the "citizens paraded the streets with bands of music, fireworks were set off, speeches were made appropriate to the occasion, and the best feeling was manifested by everybody." [97]


It took seventy-five ponies to make the first trip from Missouri to California. The riders of these ponies had "shoved a continent behind their hooves," and many people recognized this important fact. The crowds cheered "Long live the Pony!" till their throats were sore. When the speeches ended, the bonfires were extinguished, the bells stopped ringing, and the last waltzes were danced, it remained to be seen whether the Pony Express would be a triumph or a failure.

Pony Express Poster
"Composite Sample" of Pony Express Poster Adverstising for Riders. Courtesy of Pony Express National Memorial, St. Joseph, MO

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008