The Pony Express Rides Again

Posted April 13, 2010 at 5:57pm

The archetype of the West as the quintessential outlet for ingenuity and individualism is one of the most enduring elements of American folklore. Within this tradition, the Pony Express has a special place, conjuring an image of men indefatigably braving the perils of the yet-unformed frontier to deliver mail.

But such perceptions may be more myth than reality, embellished by those who have written America’s history and shaped its culture. A new permanent exhibit at the Postal Museum, “Pony Express: Romance vs. Reality,” replaces popularized images of the famous mail delivery system with a more accurate history.

The details may come as a surprise. The Pony Express was in fact named the “Central Overland California and Peak Express Company,” and, rather than enduring for years as a proud symbol of commerce, it folded for financial reasons in about a year and a half. In addition, it was a private enterprise, not part of the federal mail delivery system.

Jeff Meade, who coordinated the project for the Postal Museum, said that prior to this exhibition the tour groups he led were always surprised that the museum did not contain materials on the Pony Express. The idea that a failed business enterprise should merit such importance proves the misunderstanding of the Pony Express, Meade said.

“The Pony Express has become an example of the American West: It’s not just about the mail delivery, it’s about western expansion,” Meade said. “[The exhibition] is about how we document history, because sometimes the facts become less important than the story.”

The exhibition centers around a glass case divided into two sections, labeled “Romance” and “Reality.” The items chosen for the two halves of the display demonstrate how popular culture glamorized the Pony Express, creating a fable that persisted for years after the business itself disappeared.

In the “Romance” half, a recreation of a stylized poster from one of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s “Wild West” shows, which were crucial in first creating the romanticized version of the Pony Express (Bill claimed to have been employed as a rider for the mail service), hangs next to posters for Pony Express-themed movies starring Roy Rogers, Charlton Heston and John Wayne. Other memorabilia, including a Pony Express beer stein and a small Hotwheels truck with the words “Pony Express” standing between tongues of yellow flame, show how pervasive images of the Pony Express became.

The factual portions of the exhibit also merit some attention — not only to dispel myth, but also for the portrait they paint of an incipient attempt at efficient transcontinental communication. The 1,996-mile-long route used by Pony Express riders stretched from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., and it was connected by a series of station houses, many of which were hastily constructed over a roughly six-month period. Each rider would cover a 75-mile section, changing horses every 10 miles or so. Although this was not the nation’s first horse-based mail delivery system — Meade noted that as far back as the colonial era, other mail systems existed and even adopted the colloquial name of “pony express” — this one was remarkable for its scope and served as a precursor to future lines of communication such as roads and telegraph lines.

While the system marked an improvement over existing options — in ideal conditions, riders could traverse the route in 10 days rather than the 24 required by a stage coach — it was not financially sustainable. A half-ounce piece of mail cost $5 to send (about $75 in today’s money), and the company lost about $30 for every piece of mail it carried. Founded in April of 1860, the company was sold by October 1861 — and while its riders no longer carried mail, their legacy would come to carry the aspirations of a nation continually bending its gaze westward.