Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Pony Express Route / California

pony express poster
The Pony Express was the world's most incredible feat of mail delivery. As the poster on the left clearly announces, the Pony Express system wanted young wiry riders with expert horsemanship skills. Due to the dangers involved orphans were preferred. The Pony Express route not only ordered the rider to traverse desolate territory but the path also crossed hostile Indian lands which made the job much more difficult. The Pony Express riders were to have mounts which could in theory out run Indian horsemen.

The route ran from St Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA. The entire route was about 1,900 miles long. The rider actually took a barge over the Missouri River from St. Joseph and as soon as the plank was lowered on the Kansas side, the rider took off westbound with lightning speed. There were several reasons for beginning the Pony Express, speed of delivery obviously being one of them, but also that the government felt it necessary to have better communications with California during the Civil War period. Prior to this the mail traveled over the 2,800 mile southern route to California but during the Civil War this route was often blocked.

In a very real way the Pony Express helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War. There were about half a million people living west of the Rocky Mountains at the time of the war and they wanted to stay connected with the east. A letter sent by Pacific Mail Steamer would have to go through the Isthmus of Panama and would take a month or more to make it to New York. The Butterfield Overland Mail Stage which took the southern route to California was shut down because of the war. A letter sent on the Pony Express would take a matter of days and it was the only logical alternative. After arriving in Missouri it could either be sent by train or telegraphed. The telegraph mode of communication was developed in the 1830's and then grew tremendously in the 1840's and 1850's. It was the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 that mad the Pony Express system only about an 18 month affair.

pony express postage stampSacramento was the western terminus for the Pony Express route. Mail was delivered by fast steamer between Sacramento and San Francisco via the Sacramento River. Eastbound mail originating from California and the Washington Territory was sent to San Francisco and then Sacramento. Telegraph lines at the time were as west as St Joseph and on the California end as east as Placerville in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Urgent messages could be wired from Placerville to San Francisco and from St. Joseph eastward. To the right is a replica of a 25 cent Pony Express stamp from the era.

The California route went from Sacramento east to the south shore of Lake Tahoe. After that it went through the Indian country of Nevada. The path pretty much followed the present day U.S. 50 through Placerville and over Echo Summit to Lake Tahoe's south shore. U.S. 50 in those days was known as Johnson's Cutoff. The sites of many of the Pony Express stations along this route are commemorated with historical markers. The Pony Express system operated from April 1860 to October 1861.

When traveling to the Lake Tahoe area, you would want to stop and see the "Sportsman's Hall" site at Pollock Pines. It was also known as the "Twelve Mile House" and it was considered a "remount station". The address is 5622 Old Pony Express Trail, just off Highway 50.

These websites will give you more information about the California Pony Express route:



Pollock Pines Sportsman's Hall 

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