By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The year 1860 is famous for more than the start of the Civil War; it also marked the beginning of the Pony Express. On April 3 of that year, a batch of mail was stuffed into a mail pouch and tossed on the saddle. That was the signal to Johnny Fry, an ex-jockey and the first rider of the Pony Express, to hit the road. Fry galloped through the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri, and headed west.
On average, each pony rider covered approximately 75 miles and changed horses every 12 to 15 miles. It took quite a few horses and riders to get that bag of mail all the way from Missouri to California. Yet only 10 days later, it arrived in Sacramento, a distance of 1,966 miles.
Helping to keep the memory of this fascinating but short-lived (19 months total) slice of American history alive is the National Pony Express Association, an all-volunteer organization that supports the preservation of the Pony Express National Historic Trail. Each June, members of the association reenact the historic ride. As many as 500 riders posted along the route take their turn at maintaining the timetables followed by the express riders so long ago. For more information, write to the National Pony Express Association, P.O. Box 236, Pollock Pines, CA 95726, or check the association’s Web site at www.xphomestation.com.
Thanks to federal, state, and local efforts, approximately a dozen Pony Express relay stations have been restored or reconstructed along the Pony Express National Historic Trail, along with a number of other structures once used for housing, as stables, etc. The National Park Service Web site indicates that the number of these sites could rise to more than 100. You can find a listing of U.S. and state highways that pass closest to the trail followed so long ago. Discover more information about the Pony Express at www.nps.gov/poex. Now we’ll head back to where the east-to-west route began.
1. Pony Express National Memorial, St. Joseph, Missouri
This memorial and museum is in what was then known as the Pike’s Peak Stable, the east-to-west starting point for the Pony Express near the Missouri and Kansas border. At this brick stable (the original wood structure was replaced in 1888), Johnny Fry mounted his horse for the first ride. Visitors who enter the building see the likeness of a stable hand holding the reins of a full-size horse as the rider prepares to begin his run. Another man stands ready to swing open the doors. Other parts of the museum include dioramas dramatizing hardships and experiences the riders faced along the route. This is a can’t-miss stop on your Pony Express travels.
2. Patee House, St. Joseph, Missouri
Only three blocks away you’ll find the restored Patee House. It contains the re-created St. Joseph office of the Central Overland and Pike’s Peak Express companies, plus other memorabilia. When it opened in 1858, the 140-room Patee House was one of the finest hotels west of the Mississippi River. Total original route miles in Missouri: 1.
3. Marysville, Kansas.
In Marysville, Pony Express riders connected with the Oregon Trail. The old stone barn that served as a home station is now a museum, and the interior appears much as it did when Johnny Fry gave the mail to the second rider. The museum, which is located next to the barn, displays a mochilla (leather mail bag), a revolver belonging to a Pony Express rider, and other relics.
4. Hollenberg, Kansas
Close to the Kansas and Nebraska border you’ll find a weathered ranch-style building that is the only unaltered Pony Express station that remains in its original location. Gerat Hollenberg, a German immigrant, built this roadhouse on Cottonwood Creek in the 1850s as traffic along the Oregon Trail increased. Many emigrants stopped to buy supplies, to repair their wagons, or to stay overnight. The ranch provided Pony Express riders with fresh horses and charged them 27 cents for a hot meal. Each August the roadhouse is part of a Pony Express festival. Total original route miles in Kansas: 139.
5. Fairbury, Nebraska
Another restored roadhouse, Rock Creek Station, stands just across the Kansas border. Today visitors can see five-foot-deep ruts produced by hundreds of wagons following the Oregon Trail. In addition to the visitors center, you also can see two ranches reconstructed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The West Ranch contains a log cabin, stables, and a corral. Across the creek, the East Ranch has a ranch house, a barn, a well, a bunkhouse, and a corral.
6. Fort Kearny, Nebraska
Fort Kearny, also on the Oregon Trail, is situated along the Platte River. Many other feeder trails joined the “Great Platte River Road” as it headed west. Next to the fort was a relay station where the riders changed horses. Today there’s a replica stockade, plus a reconstructed sod blacksmith shop. A slide show at the visitors center of this Nebraska State Historical Park tells the story of Fort Kearny and the Pony Express.
7. Cozad and Gothenburg, Nebraska
These two towns, both within easy reach of Interstate 80, feature preserved cabins that at one time were used as Pony Express stations. At Cozad, a rough-hewn log cabin stands in the city park. Ten miles west at Gothenburg, a similar cabin can be found in the town park. Along the remaining stretch through western Nebraska, travelers see the same wonders written about by their predecessors: Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. Total original route miles in Nebraska: 441.
8. Fort Laramie, Wyoming
Here, too, the Pony Express station was near a military reservation and a water source. The company posted a pair of men at each station, tasked to serve two riders a day and to make certain that the horses were cared for. Station duty was isolated, lonely, and sometimes more hazardous than the job of a rider.
9. Fort Bridger, Wyoming
At this point the riders left the Oregon Trail to head for the Great Salt Lake. In 1857 the Army had greatly enlarged Fort Bridger to protect settlers heading west. Visitors to Fort Bridger State Historical Site can view the post trader’s store, Wyoming’s first schoolhouse, a milk house, a wash house, a warehouse, a mess hall, a carriage house, an icehouse, and the Pony Express stable. Total original route miles in Wyoming: 540.
10. Fairfield, Utah
Camp Floyd, established in 1858, was the first military installation in present-day Utah. It provided troops to protect against Indian attacks and to keep the trail open for the Pony Express, stage lines, and other travelers. Since the Express Station has long since disappeared, the Camp Floyd Stagecoach Inn is the centerpiece of today’s state park. The restored inn is open to visitors, and the commissary building is now a visitors center. You also will find a wayside exhibit in the picnic area.
11. Simpson Springs, Utah
The availability of excellent water made Simpson Springs one of the most prominent Pony Express stations in the desert. Since several structures have been built and destroyed in the vicinity of Simpson Springs, it isn’t known which one served as the station for the Pony Express. The current building is a replica. The Bureau of Land Management maintains interpretive wayside exhibits and a campground. A monument was erected in 1965 to mark the station site. Total original route miles in Utah: 241.
12. Silver Springs, Nevada
Northeast of Carson City, Indian raids interrupting immigration traffic spurred the construction of Fort Churchill. It was certainly built to last, with adobe buildings constructed on stone foundations. The Pony Express station was situated in the fort’s headquarters building, and still stands. Fort Churchill State Historic Park includes the ruins of the adobe fort. Total original route miles in Nevada: 404.
13. Old Sacramento, California
The Pony Express route follows J Street right through Sacramento, heading directly to the B.F. Hastings Building, the western terminus of the Pony Express. Old Sacramento has two Pony Express historic sites: the B.F. Hastings Building and a Pony Express statue. Other points of interest can be found along the well-marked corridor. Total original route miles in California: 223.