ST. JOSEPH, Mo. —On April 3, 1860, a young man named Johnny Fry took off from St. Joseph on horseback, the first of a relay of riders on a new mail service to California. A re-enactment of that ride will be part of the events scheduled for April 1-3 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.
The Pony Express Museum opened in 1959 on the site of the original stables; it doubled in size and added new exhibits in 1993. The museum features a diorama of the mounted Fry eager for the stable door to open so he can begin his ride into history.
The original enterprise, Central Overland and California Pikes Peak Express Co., carried letters and telegrams for 18 months, with the pony riders covering 1,966 miles in 10 to 14 days. The route ran from St. Joseph through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada to Sacramento, Calif. That story is told in artifacts and exhibits throughout the museum.
St. Joseph was chosen because it was the western end of telegraph and rail service coming from the east and had good roads heading west.
Up to 100 riders were hired, including William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Their wages were $100 a month. They ranged in age from 11 to mid-40s, and each had to weigh less than 125 pounds.
Horses were changed every 10 to 15 miles at relay stations, and new riders mounted every 75 to 100 miles at home stations. The riders began at both ends. When Fry was leaving St. Joseph, Bill Hamilton was heading out of Sacramento.
The delivery service was set up because folks on the West Coast were eager for news from back East, where a new president was about to be elected and the country was edging toward civil war. The quickest run took seven days and 17 hours, carrying President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address.
If you think a stamp is expensive today, consider postal rates during the Pony Express. The initial cost was $5 per half ounce of mail. It later was lowered to $1 per half ounce.
The service ended in October of 1861, when St. Joseph was joined by telegraph line to Sacramento, and news could travel in a matter of minutes. Almost 35,000 letters were carried while the Pony Express was in operation. Not until the completion of the railroad in 1868 would letter mail again reach California as quickly.
The sesquicentennial celebration will include a Buffalo Bill look-alike contest, chuck-wagon dinner and cowboy poets competition on April 1, a train robbery and other re-enactments on April 2 and hourly Pony Express rides, a parade, re-enactments and a Michael Martin Murphy concert on April 3.
For a full schedule of events, call 1-800-530-5930 or visit ponyexpress.org.