April 1, 2010
Pony Express poster (National Postal Museum/Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

Pony Express poster (National Postal Museum/Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

150 Years Ago in News History: The Pony Express Takes a Ride

In 1860, recruitment posters for Pony Express riders made clear the dangers involved in carrying mail and newspapers on horseback from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif.:

"Wanted. Young, skinny wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages 25.00 per week."

From April 1860 until October 1861, the Pony Express — which relied on horse-mounted carriers riding relay — provided a quick and efficient way to deliver information day and night. Nearly 200 men were riders.

Typically a rider would cover 75 to 100 miles a day, changing horses at intervals of 10 to 15 miles. A one-way trip could take anywhere from 10 to 16 days, depending on weather conditions. About 400 horses were used on the Pony Express routes.

The owner of the service, the Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Company, later renamed the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company, hoped the efficiency of the system would help it win a $1 million government contract that would provide mail service year round. But financial debt, political pressures and the beginning of the Civil War doomed the company.

The completion of the transcontinental telegraph system in October 1861 revolutionized news and rendered the Pony Express obsolete. Telegraph wires spanned the continent, and newspapers became the telegraph's best customers. Stories that took riders weeks to deliver could now flash in minutes.

"Space," declared The New York Post Herald, "has been annihilated."

After 18 months, the Pony Express was out of business.

Exhibits on the speed of news and the Pony Express are displayed in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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