Snail Mail vs The Pony Express

Do you feel the USPS moves at a snail’s pace? Figuratively speaking, I suppose it is slow as a snail compared to E-(lectronic) mail which delivers letters, cards, documents, and contracts at the speed of light. But, on the other hand, today’s “snail” mail still shows great progress over the famed delivery system of “horse” mail – via the Pony Express!

At the time of the Pony Express, established in 1860, mail delivery from the Missouri River, where the westbound rail system came to a halt, to Sacramento, California, in 10 days was considered very fast! Mail carried west by stagecoach and wagons could take months and dangers of rough terrain and attacks could completely stop delivery. The Pony Express became the West’s most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph was established, and was vital for tying the new state of California with the rest of the United States. Correspondence during the Lincoln presidential campaign and a heightened concern for a pending war gave high priority to establishing a speedy system. If that sounds impressive, imagine the 2016 Presidential Campaign via the Pony Express!

In 1860, there were about 157 Pony Express stations that were about 10 miles apart; this was roughly the distance a horse could travel at a gallop before tiring. Each rider rode about 12 ½ mph and 75 miles per day. Costs for sending mail was $5.00 per ½ ounce (about $130.00 to today’s standards) and 5 cents for each additional ounce. The rates were reduced to $1.00 per ½ ounce (equivalent to $26) where these costs contributed to the scarcity of surviving Pony Express mail.

The route generally followed the established Mormon, Oregon, and California Trails and after leaving the headquarters in St. Joseph, Missouri, riders traversed the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.

The top five northeastern counties in Kansas are designated the Pony Express Country as the route began at the Missouri River, headed west, and turned north into Nebraska when leaving Washington County. The first rider ferried the Missouri River from St. Joseph, either with his horse, or mounted his ready and waiting pony later at the station in Elwood, Kansas. Galloping at top speed, he then headed to a station located near Troy, Kansas. A monument in the northwest corner of the courthouse lawn notes the existence of the relay station. Stories associated with handing pastries to the passing rider by the Dooley girls probably originated in the Troy area. These pastries were supposedly the first donuts, the hole making them easy to grasp as the rider sped past.

Sources generally agree that the Seneca, Kansas station was the first home station on the westward trek through Kansas. At each Swing Station riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones, while Home Stations housed the riders between runs. The Seneca Station was also known as the Smith Hotel built in 1858, and designated a Home Station when the mail route started in 1860. A marker designates the site of the original station in downtown Seneca across the street from the Pony Express Museum.

After crossing some prairie country, the next stop was Marysville, Kansas. In 1859, local businessmen, Joseph H. Cottrell and Hank Williams contracted with Pony Express founders, Russell, Majors, and Waddell, to build and lease a livery stable as a home station. The riders probably slept at the nearby Barrett Hotel. In April 1973, the stone barn, still remaining on it original site along the Pony Express route, joined the National Register of Historic Places. Today the building serves as a museum, consisting of the original stable, which is the oldest building in Marshall County. A matching architectural style annex was added in 1991.
Hollenberg Pony Express Station, also known as Cottonwood Pony Express Station, was built by Gerat H. Hollenberg in 1858, to serve travelers on the Oregon and California Trails. When the Pony Express was established in 1860, the cabin served riders and provided remounts. The station also served the Butterfield Overland Mail. Hollenberg traded with emigrants on the trails, operated the westernmost Pony Express station in Kansas, and provided relay services for the Overland Mail. Situated five miles northeast of Hanover, Kansas, it is the only remaining Pony Express stop still standing in its original location and is probably the only unaltered Pony Express building on the route. In 1961 Hollenberg Pony Express Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places, then a year later it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1963 the Kansas Historical Society was given the responsibility to operate and preserve the Station. Discover the stories of the Hollenbergs, pioneer life, and the Pony Express at this National Historic Landmark.

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