This Patient Rider Spent Months Retracing the Pony Express on Horseback

When the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Co. launched the Pony Express on April 3, 1860, fanfare for the new express mail service made newspaper headlines from New York to San Francisco. The cheers came loudest from California where proponents hailed its commencement as a vital step forward in linking the Far West with the rest of the country. The advertised delivery time between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif. was 10 days, accomplished by a fast-horse relay. Way stations spaced 10 to 20 miles apart provided couriers with fresh horses, enabling them to carry the mail across the West at the speed of a galloping horse. And that’s nearly the way it shook out. 

Pony Express trail sign
A Bureau of Land Management signpost in Nevada denotes the trace of the original mail route.
(Photo: Tom Fowlks)

The Pony Express was the greatest display of American horsemanship ever to color the pages of a history book, but it was short-lived. Each of the nearly 190 stations had to be stocked with horses, provisions and stock tenders. Fifteen of the stations had no viable water source; water for the horses and the men looking after them had to be hauled in by mule-drawn wagons. The mail ran twice weekly, both eastbound and westbound, and after a year in operation it was eating up $5 for every $1 that it earned. It was prohibitively expensive, and on Oct. 26, 1861, the Pony Express hung up its spurs. But it cast a long shadow. As author William Banning wrote about that era in his 1928 book Six Horses, “A more glamorous contribution to our historic West than that of this ephemeral Pony would be difficult to name.” 

In 1860 and ’61, the Pony Express provided a connection between the East and the West. In 2019 the route afforded a way for me to connect the modern West and its recent history, presenting a roughly 2,000-mile avenue between past and present. I’ve been a horseman since I was old enough to know the term, and I decided the only way for me to see the country was from the back of a horse. On a personal level, I wanted to meet the people who lived along the trail, to fill in the map, and to do it slowly. Whereas the riders of the Pony Express compassed the same distance in 10 days, I’d spend all summer in the saddle. Doing so, I reckoned, would give me an end-to-end perspective of the West, a thorough look at all the country between Missouri and California. And so, on May 5, with two good horses, Chicken Fry and Badger, I pulled out of St. Joseph, bound for Sacramento.

What ensued was an intimate grittiness. I camped at old Pony Express stations, in farmers’ yards and ranchers’ pastures, and in desert valleys so dry and quiet that dawn broke like a pistol shot over the salt pans. I wore out my boots and my shirt and half a dozen pairs of wool socks, but I did not wear out my horses. On September 22, when I arrived at the base of the bronze statue of a Pony Express rider on the Old Sacramento waterfront, their eyes were bright and their coats shiny, and though both were trail-weary, neither horse was diminished for the journey. The Last Ride of the Pony Express is the story of who I met, what I saw and what I learned by crossing the West by horseback.

Pony Express stables, St. Joseph, Mo.
In 1860 the eastern terminus of the Pony Express route, in St. Joseph, Mo., was this building housing the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Co. stables. The building sits on the east bank of the Missouri River, and on receiving their mail pouches, riders would ferry their horses across the river to Kansas. Today the stables house the Pony Express National Museum, which was the jumping-off point for the author’s trek.
(Photo: Claire Antoszewski)
Grant riding horse with second horse walking beside
The unwavering average speed of travel for the author and his horses was 3 mph. Will, Chicken Fry (on which Grant is riding in this photo) and Badger covered 20 to 25 miles per day and never moved faster than a walk. The goal was to travel four consecutive days and then take a day of rest, though weather and many unforeseen factors changed that. Initially, the horses rotated between the packhorse and the saddle horse, but as they became more physically fit, their backs changed, and the packsaddle ceased to fit Badger. Thus, from western Nebraska onward Chicken Fry only served as the saddle horse in adverse circumstances.
(Photo: Nate Bressler)
Hollenberg Pony Express Station in Kansas
The Hollenberg Pony Express Station, in the northeast Kansas town of Hanover, serves as a museum. According to its interpretive signs, the riders slept in the attic, and meals were served on the main floor. The station was also a popular stopover for stagecoach passengers and settlers traveling both west and east.
(Photo: Claire Antoszewski)
Horses in the Great Salt Lake Desert
The author found the Great Salt Lake Desert, in western Utah, to be an austere environment in early August. The salt pans and alkali flats taxed and slowed the infamous Donner Party such that it later became trapped in the Sierra Nevada in winter and resorted to cannibalism.
(Photo: Will Grant)
Grant navigating via map
Calculating distances between stops and obtaining permission to camp on private land were unending chores. In addition to digital maps on his mobile phone, the author carried pages cut from an atlas to ensure navigation was possible when the phone batteries ran down.
(Photo: Tom Fowlks)
Pony Express Trail sign
A National Historic Trail sign in western Utah stands beside the dirt byway known today
as the Pony Express Road. The original trail, which appears as a faint scar in the sagebrush, runs parallel to the present-day road.
(Photo: Will Grant)
barn quilt on display at a ranch
A barn quilt on display at a ranch in Glenrock, Wyo., reflects the enthusiasm for preservation of the Pony Express shown by private landowners and conservationists all along the trail between Missouri and California.
(Photo: Will Grant)
Riding along Tri County Supply Canal in Nebraska
The pathway along the Tri County Supply Canal, in Lincoln County, Neb., provided a respite from busy highways and country roads. The heavy rainfall of 2019 meant that finding pasturage for the horses was easy, though the author’s leather boots were often wet for days at a time.
(Photo: Nate Bressler)
On horseback in McDonald's drive-thru
When the trio arrived at the drive-through window of this McDonald’s in Torrington, Wyo., the young women on shift happily provided the horses with sliced apples. Chicken Fry navigated the situation as though he had previously picked up fast food.
(Photo: Bill Frakes)
In front of a bronze statue of a Pony Express rider at the Old Sacramento waterfront
After 142 days on the trail the author pulled up his horses before the bronze statue of a Pony Express rider at the Old Sacramento waterfront. The horses made the journey without injury or sickness, while the author suffered only minimal bloodshed.
(Photo: Claire Antoszewski)

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