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  • The Postal History of the United States. Part Two: Westward Expansion

    In the spring of 1860, three entrepreneurs started a short-lived messenger service whose legacy would live on beyond the next century.  That service was the Pony Express.

    Pony Express' rates were high, ringing in at $5 for a half-ounce letter, but so were the dangers faced by its riders.  Stations were spaced about 10 miles apart, and a single rider would carry 20 lbs. of mail, swapping horses at each station.  In addition to the weather and the rugged terrain, carriers had to worry about Indian attacks and the occasional robbery.

    Pony Express Map

    Illustrated Map of Pony Express Route in 1860
    by William Henry Jackson
    ~ Courtesy the Library of Congress ~
    The Pony Express mail route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861; Reproduction of Jackson illustration issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Pony Express founding on April 3, 1960. Reproduction of Jackson's map issued by the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

    Most of the riders were young, and on the small side.  The demands the job made of the horses meant that riders could not exceed 125 lbs.  They would ride for up to 100 miles in a single day.  In way of compensation, the job was glamorous and paid a wage about 25 times higher than that for unskilled labor at the time.

    Communication technology was already advancing beyond letters that had to be physically delivered to the recipient.  The Morse telegraph had been invented in 1837, and by 1860 telegraph lines reached all the way to states bordering the Mississippi River.  But the country was extending its borders all the way to the west coast faster than the technology of the day.  A Pony Express message from the east coast would start out as a telegraph until it reached company headquarters in Missouri.  From there on, it would continue as a letter carried by a series of riders on horseback until reaching its destination.  The Pony Express cut the delivery time between coasts to about 10 days.

    It wasn’t the invention of the telegraph that put the Pony Express out of business.  It was the growth of telegraph lines across the continent that made service obsolete.  Soon after, in May 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed, speeding the delivery of regular mail to between the coasts. However, much like the establishment of the United States Post Office before it, the Pony Express was an important asset to an American government that needed to keep in touch with its territories.  In the last decades of the 19th Century, expanding development would take the place of innovation and adventure.  But in the early 20th Century, a new service would recall some of the adventure and glamor of the Pony Express.

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