The Pony Express, which some say started as an expensive publicity stunt by the freighting firm Russell, Majors & Waddell to snag a lucrative government mail contract, turned into an 18-month adventure that still captures the imagination of western-history lovers. For more than 132 years, the lore of the Pony Express has endured. Almost yearly, people ride all or parts of the trail on horseback. From its starting point in St. Joseph, Missouri, to its terminus in Sacramento, California, the Express' 1,839 miles traversed the "central route." Transportation magnates William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell were betting on this route to triumph over the more popular but longer southern route as the nation's choice of mail and passenger service between the Mississippi and California.
The First Administrative Division of the Pony Express route stretched from St. Joseph to the Kearny Station, near present-day Kearney, Nebraska. (Yes, the name of the site and the nearby fort were spelled differently than the town in Nebraska.) With some good maps, a reliable vehicle, and a little effort, you can ride that section of the route and spot site markers and enjoy some excellent museums and visitors centers to learn more about the Pony Express along the way. The 275-300 mile trip can be done in a long day, though two and better even three days allow time for you to examine artifacts and displays which remain of this adventuresome heritage. The trip also offers the chance to glimpse something of the heritage of the Plains states from the mid-19th century to the present.
There were two kinds of stations on the Pony Express route: "swing," or relay stations and home stations. At the swing stations, riders changed horses; at the home stations, riders traded their 50-75 miles in the saddle for a chance to bunk overnight until they were up again to relieve a rider coming from the opposite direction. In some cases, riders earned fame and their reputations when Indian trouble, or the violence of the weather stopped their relief from coming through and they had to double up and ride more than their alloted miles.
According to historians Merrill J. Mattes and Paul Henderson, in their book "The Pony Express From St. Joseph to Fort Laramie," there were 24 stations in the St. Joseph-Fort Kearny division. This does not include Fort Kearny. Mattes and Henderson say that the fort itself didn't have a station proper, although there was a stop 40 rods west of the fort (about 220 yards) where the Holliday Stage Lines had a shack at which Pony Express riders may have stopped irregularly to pick up military and civilian mail.
My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary "adventuring" along the First Administrative Division of the historic trail, tracking down monuments and station remains along the way, meeting the people, and having the perfect anniversary celebration for two enthusiasts of the history of the Old West. We chose to limit our travels to the First Division only because we were limited on time and financial resources -- and because that first division is located relatively near our home.
A number of years have gone by since our trip (we did it in 1992), but the people and artifacts of this colorful trail are still there and still very worth seeing. This is the first of several articles I will be writing to share our impressions and some of the things we learned about this brief, romantic period in the life and history of the Old West as we took to the trail. I hope you'll ride along with us!