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The Pony Express left lasting imprints in Tooele County   PDF  Print  E-mail 
Written by Jaromy Jessop  
Tuesday, 06 December 2005

The subject of the next couple of weeks will be what I consider to be Tooele County’s greatest claim to historical fame — the Pony Express. Quite possibly the most intact portion of the old express trail is right here in Utah, mainly in Juab and Tooele counties. Unlike the plains of Nebraska and points east that have been plowed over hundreds of times, destroying any trace in many areas, the barren wastes of western Tooele County remain much the same as they were back in April of 1860 when the pony riders carried their first messages.

Over 100 miles of the Pony Express National Historic Trail exist in the west desert of Utah and a person traveling this route today will remember it for the rest of their lives just as certainly as the riders did back then. The road is bumpy, dusty, dry, remote and crude — just as it was in 1860. As you travel over Lookout Pass, emerge from the Old River Bed, or wind your way up Overland Canyon, it is easy to imagine hostile Indians lying in wait to ambush the riders who amazingly only lost one package in the year and a half that the express was in operation.

In this first article, I will attempt to explain just what the Pony Express was, how it came about, what it was like, and why it disappeared almost as suddenly as it began. In subsequent articles, I will talk about individual stations, stretches of the road, descriptions given by prominent persons and some amazing tales of adventure. Due to the fact that some stations located outside the boundaries of Tooele County are significant to individuals and occurrences covered in previous and future topics, I will also include stations located in Utah, Juab, and White Pine counties.

Now, what was the Pony Express and why did it come about? Back in 1860 the country was undergoing serious tensions and changes. The slavery issue was about to hurl the country into Civil War, Johnston’s Army was stationed at Camp Floyd to watch the Mormons, and the country was growing faster than the mails of the day could keep up with. Before the Pony Express, it took six to eight weeks for a letter to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast. The mail would travel by steamer to Panama and then mules would carry it across the Isthmus of Panama, and another steamer would take the mail up to San Francisco. The going joke of the day was that the “East” would forget events before the “West” had ever even heard of them.

This was an unacceptable situation, especially since the largest standing army in the country was in Utah, and Sacramento, San Francisco and California in general were growing in stature and national importance. The mail just had to get through in a more timely fashion.

W.H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, who were currently operating a daily stage from Kansas City, Mo. to Salt Lake City came up with the pony rider idea and told the government they could get a message from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif. in ten days.

On April 3, 1860 the first riders headed east with messages from Sacramento and west with messages from St. Joseph. This was an incredible distance of nearly 2,000 miles! The Pony Express started with 80 riders, 500 horses, and 190 stations that were spaced every 10-12 miles along the trail. The horses were mostly California Mustangs with some Morgans mixed in. Each rider received $25 per week and was issued two revolvers, a rifle, a bowie knife, and a leather Bible. Most of the riders found this gear to be too cumbersome and decided not to carry the rifle. The average weight of the rider was 125 pounds so these were some “little dudes” carrying the mail.

Upon accepting employment, these men were presented with the aforementioned Bible they were required to take the following oath on “I (name of rider) do hereby swear before the great and living God that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will under no circumstances use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, and that I will not quarrel or fight with other employees of the firm, and that in every respect will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God”

There were 400 station men and assistants, and the riders would carry the mail day and night, through rain, sleet, snow, or shine. New riders took over every 75-100 miles. When a rider would approach a station it was much like a Nascar pit stop, oftentimes the rider would simply blow right through the station, grabbing the mail sack from the station man in flight. If you have seen the movie “The Postman” starring Kevin Costner, you will remember when he charges past a home and snatches a letter from a little boy’s hand. That is what I think it must have been like.

Some riders rode incredible distances. Pony “Bob” Haslam even rode through an ambush of Indians with his pistols blazing. When he stopped at the relay station, he had the attendant pull an arrow out of his arm and stuff a rag in his mouth where he had a broken jaw with some teeth missing and he rode over 120 miles more in this condition!

The route was infested with hostile Indians and the riders had to constantly be alert and ready to react to an ambush, especially at choke points such as Dugway Pass, Overland Canyon, Lookout Pass and Egan Canyon. The Indians made constant trouble for the express and later the Overland Stage as they would burn stations and kill the attendants and plunder any stores that they could. Troops of Calvary from Camp Floyd would be sent out along the trail to maintain order, chastise the Indians, and keep the mail going through.

The cost of sending mail via Pony Express was extraordinary. Letters cost $5 per ounce and what is truly amazing is that even at this incredible cost, the Pony Express was a losing venture with its founders ending up losing $200,000 on the deal.

Why did the Pony Express fail? From a financial standpoint, according to Majors, it was mismanagement and Indians. What really doomed the Pony Express though was the transcontinental telegraph. On Oct. 26, 1861, the wires were connected in Salt Lake City and that was the death nail for the Pony Express, which ceased operations on the same day. Messages that took 10 days via the Pony Express, now traveled the same distance in 10 seconds.

After its demise, the company was sold at auction to an enterprising young man named Ben Holladay in March of 1862. The Pony Express only lasted 19 months but it has left a very significant mark on the history and folklore of the nation. President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration address was carried by Pony Express in the fastest time ever at seven days and 17 hours. The last messages of the Buchanan administration were carried via the express as well as the news of “Shots Fired” at Fort Sumter. The Pony Express is also credited with keeping California in the Union before the Civil War.

Several prominent pioneers in Utah were Pony Express riders including Major Howard Egan, his sons Howard Ransom Egan, and Richard Erastus Egan, Henry “Doc” Faust, Elijah Nichols Wilson (the subject of “White Indian Boy”), and George Washington Perkins. Even Wild Bill Hickman carried the satchel from time to time.

Most of the trail has faded away with the passage of time but the stretch from Camp Floyd in Utah County to Egan Station in White Pine County is 200-plus miles of dirt roads that follow the route of the trail. True adventure can still be had along this route, which in Utah is administered by the BLM Salt Lake District Office. Along this route there are interpretive markers that stand as conical monuments in the desert to a time long since past. There are also three-foot high concrete pillars spaced what seems to be every mile along the route with the words “Pony Express Trail” engraved in them.

Throughout the next few weeks we will travel this trail and visit places like Meadow Creek, Simpson Springs, Willow Springs, Eight Mile, and Schellbourne on a fascinating journey into the past of the Great American Desert.

Jaromy D. Jessop grew up in West Valley City where he attended Kearns High School and earned the Eagle Scout award while exploring the Utah Desert. A graduate of the University of Utah, B.S. in geography, U.S. Army Reserve Captain Jessop lives with his family in Dugway where he is employed by Jacobs Sverdrup at Michael Army Airfield.


 
   
     

 
 

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