When we can send a letter, a photo, or a video instantly from here to China with one click of a button, it’s difficult to appreciate the speed of the Pony Express mail service that seemed close to “instant” in 1860. To get the mail from the banks of the Missouri River to Sacramento, Calif., in 10 days was incredibly fast compared to the 30 days it took for letters to travel from New York to San Francisco by steam ship and the 20 days it took to travel overland by the Butterfield Express.
William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors never became rich off the short-lived Pony Express, but the historic mail service was extremely successful before the Pacific telegraph line took its place. Between April 3, 1860, and October 24, 1861, men on horseback relayed the mail 2,000 miles over the hot dry prairie and snow-capped Rockies. They faced dangers of dehydration, fatigue, severe weather elements, hostile Indians, and injury.
Just 19 months after Johnny Fry left the stables in St. Joseph, the telegraph zoomed in like today’s Internet and tapped its messages across the newly strung wires from east to west coast. Even though the Pony Express did not survive, stories of its thrilling history survive and are vividly interpreted at St. Joseph’s Pony Express Museum.
The Pony Express Museum welcomes visitors into a rider’s experiences as they pass through a panorama of the journey and literally feel the heat of the desert and the cool winds of the frozen Rockies. Visitors can dig their heals into the stirrups of the saddle that carried the mochila (the pouch of mail) and imagine riding right through the stable doors. They can pump water up the original site’s well, sort the mail, and touch the furs of some of the animals riders would have encountered along the way.
Entertaining and informational exhibits invite visitors of all ages to get in on the action the riders must have experienced. Just outside the building an old pioneer school house was recently constructed and is now frequently used to educate students of the 2000s about the students of the 1800s. Russell, Waddell, and Majors located their Pony Express headquarters just across the street in St. Joseph’s grand Patee hotel. Today, visitors can tour the nearby PateeMuseum and extend their Pony Express experience.
One reason that St. Joseph was chosen to be the headquarters for the Pony Express was because of the commerce opportunities, along their varied modes of transportation. Russell, Waddell, and Majors were in the freight and shipping business originally and saw the location as very suitable. The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad rolled into town on February 14, 1859. It was the first railroad to cross the state and offered direct and easy communication with the east coast. St. Joseph also had the rolling Missouri River along its side; the longest river in the United States and a watery interstate of trading traffic.
Even today, St. Joseph’s location along major interstates, the river, and proximity to an airport help lure businessmen like Russell, Waddell, and Majors. Hardworking local men and women reflect the spirit of the riders of the Pony Express and take pride in their history and in their promising future here in northwest Missouri.