Pony Express National Historic Trail

April 16, 2010 - 12:02pm — GettingOutside
Pony Express National Historic Trail
This year is the 150th Anniversary of Pony Express - A Celebration Will Take Place in WASHINGTON, DC to commemorate the Pony Express, the National Historic Trail and its purpose of preserving the Missouri-to-California Route!

The Pony Express National Historic Trail, established in 1992, is one of 17 National Historic Trails administered by the NPS. The Express started mail service between Missouri and California, in April 1860. It lasted 18 months, until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Hooves pound the earth. Sunlight flashes off a bit. Dust billows around two figures as they pass in a blur: black manes, brown flanks. Rawhide chaps, sturdy leather saddles. Locked mochillas. Black tails streaming behind.

If you had waited along the route of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express, between April 1860 and October 1861, such horse-and-rider teams might have hurtled past you as they delivered the transcontinental mail, one mochilla—leather knapsack with mail pouches—at a time!

Today, the Pony Express National Historic Trail keeps alive the memory of this 19th-century communication system while providing places for outdoor recreation. While the National Park Service (NPS) administers the trail, trail segments are managed by other agencies and individuals, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, state and local governments, and private landowners.  You can stop by any one of many great stops along the way in any of these states:

  • California,
  • Colorado,
  • Kansas,
  • Nebraska,
  • Wyoming,
  • Missouri,
  • Nevada and
  • Utah.

 “We take pride in our stewardship of the trail and in educating people about the Pony Express, which was an impressive example of teamwork,” said NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis. “Correspondence moved across the western half of the country thanks to human—and human-equine—cooperation.”

Above you see a region in Nebraska, known as the flats, which stretches for 8 miles before the rise of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Image Courtesy of NPS.)

A network of stations gave support to riders on their way through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Letters, newspapers, and telegrams traversed the West by way of “the Pony,” the brief lifespan of which encompassed the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of the Civil War. The Pony Express brought Lincoln’s inaugural address to California, which remained part of the Union because of the policies the new president set forth. Some scholars argue that without the gold fields of California, the Union would not have been able to finance its full participation in the Civil War.

Two commemorative events held in Washington, DC, this week for the 150th anniversary of the Pony included a lunchtime forum at the National Postal Museum on April 14 and a color-guard presentation of letters from the National Pony Express Association at Senate Park, just north of the U.S. Capitol, at 1 p.m. today. The letters are addressed to each senator and representative from the states and districts along the trail.

Over 20 members of the National Pony Express Association came from many states to participate in both DC events. Horses from Pennsylvania ensured that the creatures vital to the Pony Express were visible at today’s symbolic distribution of mail. The Pony Express held the nation together in a time of crisis, facilitated east-west communication, and left an indelible mark on American culture.

Romanticized and mythologized by “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show, the Pony Express has ridden into our collective consciousness and shaped the idea we all have of the frontier west. The Pony’s messengers and their galloping mounts embody adventure, stamina, commitment to duty, and national pride.

For more information, use the following contact numbers:

  • National Park Service, Washington, DC – NPS Public Affairs, 202-208-6843.
  • National Park Service, Santa Fe, New Mexico – Aaron Mahr, Superintendent,  505-988-6098.
  • National Pony Express Association – Les Bennington, President, 307-436-2233.
  • History and Transitioning of the Pony Express

History of the Pony Express

The Pony Express NHT was used by young men on fast horses to carry the nation's mail from Missouri to California in the unprecedented time of only ten days. The relay system became the nation's most direct and practical means of east-west communications before the telegraph, and it played a vital role in aligning California with the Union in the years just before the Civil War.

More than 1,800 miles in 10 days! From St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California the Pony Express could deliver a letter more quickly than ever before.

In operation for only 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express nevertheless has become synonymous with the Old West. In the era before electronic communication, the Pony Express was the thread that tied East to West.

As a result of the 1849 Gold Rush, the 1847 Mormon exodus to Utah and the thousands who moved west on the Oregon Trail starting in the 1840s, the need for a fast mail service beyond the Rocky Mountains became obvious. This need was partially filled by outfits such as the Butterfield Overland Mail Service starting in 1857 and private carriers in following years.

But when postmaster general Joseph Holt scaled back overland mail service to California and the central region of the country in 1858, an even greater need for mail arose. The creation of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell became the answer. It was later known as the Pony Express.

On June 16, 1860, about ten weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized the a bill instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidize the building of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast.

The passage of the bill resulted in the incorporation of the Overland Telegraph Company of California and the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. On July 4, 1861, Edward Creighton began building the Nebraska company's line westward from Julesburg, Colorado, toward Salt Lake City. Twelve hundred miles to the west on the same day at Fort Churchill in Nevada, James Gamble set the first pole in the Overland Telegraph Company's line.

While the lines were under construction the Pony Express operated as usual. Letters and newspapers were carried the entire length of the line from St. Joseph to Sacramento, but telegrams were carried only between the rapidly advancing wire ends.

On October 20, 1861, Creighton won the race to Salt Lake City. Four days later Gamble's crew arrived. On October 26 the wires were joined, and San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City. On that day the Pony Express was officially terminated, but it was not until November that the last letters completed their journey over the route.

Most of the original trail has been obliterated either by time or human activities. Along many segments, the trail's actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture. In the western states, the majority of the trail has been converted, over the years, to double track dirt roads. Short pristine segments, believed to be traces of the original trail, can be seen only in Utah and California. However, approximately 120 historic sites may eventually be available to the public, including 50 existing Pony Express stations or station ruins. Below you'll find a picture of one such ruin (Image courtesy of NPS); the blue sky is truly breathtaking (or giving!) out in the plains of Nebraska!

Things to Do and Places to Stop Along the Way

There are a number of ways to enjoy the Pony Express National Historic Trail, including auto-touring, visiting interpretive sites, hiking, biking or horseback riding trail segments, and visiting museums. Depending on which trail segment you would like to explore, some or all of these activities may be available.

Although the word "trail" is used in the name, the Pony Express NHT is not a true hiking trail. With 1,800 miles of the original route now in the hands of various private and public entities, access to trail segments depends upon the permission of the land owner. Some segments are open to the public for hiking and other means of recreation, while others are not.

Image Courtesy of NPS

One of the most popular attractions which is a stop along the way is Chimney Rock, in Nebraska. This is a geological formation which climbs towards the heavens and can inspire wonder and delight in even the most stoic of nature spectators. Bring the family along for a quick stop and pretend like your one of the horsemen who rode those long days and nights.

Did You Know?

To carry the U.S. Mail across 1800 miles of wilderness, Pony Express riders changed horses about every 12-15 miles. At each station, the rider would quickly take the mochila with mail pouches from his saddle and throw it onto the saddle of the fresh horse - and off he went. Here's a neat map of the rough route he had ahead of him when he set off from St. Joseph, MO (Image courtesy of NPS.)

It is estimated that between 350,000 and 500,000 people emigrated to the west between the 1840s and 1870s. They came by ox drawn wagons, on foot, & pulling hand carts until the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads completed a rail line in May of 1869 at Promotory Point in Northern Utah.

Directions to The Pony Express National Historic Trail

Since there are numerous stops along with way where you can visit and experience the Express mystique first hand, we would like to direct you to the NPS web-pages which feature both a driving route, and individual attractions:

Here is the link to the page where you will find all the different stops:

Stops Along the Way!

And here is the page where you'll find the driving route directions that roughly follow the route the Overland Express riders would have followed some 150 years ago!

Follow that Pony (in your own Steel Horse!)


Pony Express National Historic Trail Saint Joseph, MO, 64501
United States
Phone: (801) 741-1012
39° 45' 53.226" N, 94° 50' 39.4296" W
Pony Express National Historic Trail
Pony Express National Historic Trail
Pony Express National Historic Trail
Pony Express National Historic Trail
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