The small city of St. Joseph, Missouri, lies smack in the middle of the continental United States. But its colorful history is tied to the American West, which begins just across the Missouri River. We visited St. Joseph as it prepares to celebrate next year's 150th anniversary of its greatest claim to fame - the legendary mail service known as the Pony Express.
Pathfinders Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped in St. Joseph in 1806 as they returned from their historic voyage of discovery to the Pacific Northwest. St. Joseph merchants grew rich outfitting prospectors for epic gold rushes to California and Colorado. The notorious western outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed in St. Joseph in 1882.
But it was Pony Express riders, who weighed 57 kilos [125 pounds] or less, hurrying at a fast trot day and night to cover the 2700 kilometers [1700 miles] to Sacramento, California and back who became the heroes of Western novels, movies, and the spectacular Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows that toured the world.
Four museums celebrate St. Joseph's biggest claim to fame
Historian Jacqueline Lewin runs four different St. Joseph museums.
Lewin says St. Joseph was chosen as the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, "because it was the farthest west that the telegraph came, the farthest point west that the railroad came, and it already had a good road going out to California. [The trail] was established by all the immigrants who had previously traveled the West."
It was 1860, and brash Saint Joseph was sure it was destined to become the Queen City of the Prairie. But Kansas City stole that crown because many of Saint Joseph's citizens had come from the South and would align with the losing southern Confederacy, during the American Civil War that began a year later.
And 1861 would also see the last hurrah of the thrilling Pony Express.
"One Pony Express rider talks about being caught in a tornado," Lewin says. "So weather would have been a hazard. Buffalo stampedes. [But] being a rider wasn't as dangerous as being a station keeper, because the riders were constantly on the move. Station keepers faced a lot of dangers in the Utah Nevada area from the Indians," Lewin adds.
Pony Bob's long and brave ride to deliver the mail
Across town at the Pony Express National Museum in the Pikes Peak Stable building that once quartered the riders' small and fast horses, Cindy Daffron, the museum's director, describes an encounter between 20-year-old Bob Haslam and a band of Indians on the trail. "Pony Bob," as he was known, had already taken an arrow in one arm, clear to the bone.
"He said, 'I got one gun left. I'm gonna go through a pass. I gotta make it,'" Daffron explains. She continues, "and old Buck, his horse, was faster, because the Pony Express fed their horses better than the Indians did. So he knew he could get through the pass and beat them. He turns around, and sure enough, there's three more Indians coming. He pulls out the other gun, fires all its bullets. About that time, he takes another arrow right in the jaw. Took out part of his jaw and five of his teeth. But he rode 380 miles [611 kilometers] in 36 hours. It was the longest and bravest ride known by any Pony Express rider."
A rich history despite a short-lived service
Records were spotty at best in the desolate plains, mountains, and deserts crossed by Pony Express riders, but it's thought that as few as two riders died in Indian attacks. And only one pouch of mail is known to have been lost in the 18 months that the service was in operation.
The courageous riders rode in never-ending relays, changing horses every 16 kilometers [10 miles] or so before calling it a day, or night, at home stations about 125 kilometers [78 miles] down the trail. This was often after nine or ten straight hours in the saddle.
Some relay and home stations were simple dusty cabins, so filthy that riders slept in haystacks out back in the corrals.
The Pony Express kept the mail moving even as riders slept
Meanwhile the mail pouches, called by the Spanish term mochilas, kept right on going atop the next horse on the 10-day relay to or from Sacramento. The system was planned by the Pony Express owners, William Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors.
"The amazing part to me about the Pony Express was that in January, February and March of 1860, Russell, Majors and Waddell put this thing together," says Gary Chilcote, director of the Patee house museum, which is a former hotel where the Pony Express kept offices.
"They hired hundreds of people, bought hundreds of horses," Chilcote adds. "They set up stations along the route. They did all this in three months' time without any modern communications we have today. They announced in January they were going to start April third, and by gosh, that's when they started, April third."
They didn't have a single horse when they started, Chilcote says. "They didn't have anything. Didn't have any money, either," he adds.
Telegraph signals sudden end for Pony Express
But less than two years after its launch, the Pony Express service suddenly became obsolete. Once telegraph lines reached California, carrying messages in seconds rather than days, there was no further need for the relay riders.
Coordinator Beth Carmichael says special events during the Pony Express 150th Anniversary celebration next year will include everything from a Buffalo Bill look-alike contest and a full dress Pony Express ball to the annual reenactment of the cross-country ride by more than 500 riders, starting in Sacramento and ending in St. Joseph.
"They ride straight, nine or ten days straight," Carmichael says. "Seven days a week across all these states. And some of the riders are actually descendants of the Pony Express riders. When the do the re-ride, they do bring mail across, actual U.S. mail," she says.
Last year, True West magazine named St. Joseph "America's Number One Most Western Town." And this year, American Cowboy magazine followed suit, including St. Joseph in its list of "Top 20 Places to Live in the West." But the city's historic tie to the Wild West will really come to life next year, the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the daring, but short-lived, Pony Express.