Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

July 20, 2022
Desert Odyssey: The Pony Express Part 1

“Courage is being scared to death – And saddling up anyway”

John Wayne

Back in 1860 the Country was undergoing serious tension and change. The slavery issue was about to hurl the Country into civil war.

Johnston’s Army was stationed at Camp Floyd, supposedly to watch the Mormons, and the Country was growing faster than the mail of the day could keep up with. Before the Pony Express started its operations, it took 6-8 weeks for a letter to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast. 

The going joke of the day was that people in the east would forget about things that happened before people in the west ever heard of them. 

This was an unacceptable situation, especially since the largest standing Army in the Country was in Utah and Sacramento and San Francisco — and California in general — with its gold fields, natural resources and the population out west was growing in stature and national importance. 

The mail just had to get through in a timelier fashion so William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell — who were operating a daily stage from Kansas City, Missouri to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory — came up with the Pony Rider idea. They told the government that they could get a message from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, an incredible distance of 2,000 miles, in 10 days.

Russell, Majors and Waddell were uniquely and perfectly positioned to take on what would be a gargantuan task of standing up the Pony Express and stocking the line because they were already executing a contract to haul supplies to the Army at Camp Floyd from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This contract required the company to purchase and operate 3,500 wagons and teams. Over the life of the contract these teams transported 16 million pounds of supplies out to the Army in Utah. 

George Chorpenning, a man we will hear a lot more about, had been under contract by the US government to carry mail from Salt Lake City to Carson City, Nevada. 

In 1858 and 1859, Captain James H. Simpson, U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, conducted an exploration west from Camp Floyd to Genoa near Carson City. Simpson’s purpose was to determine the suitability of establishing a wagon road on a much shorter, more direct route.

Chorpenning, up to that point, had been following the Humboldt River West through central Nevada to the California settlements. When Simpson’s preliminary reports came in, Chorpenning, seeing the potential of this shorter route, decided to move his mail operation down to the outbound route that Simpson explored. 

I use the term “explored” here lightly because this route and the desert West of Camp Floyd was well known to a Mormon Pioneer named Howard Egan.

In fact, Simpson’s route west to Genoa followed along a known track that Egan had established for all but 40 or so miles along a 500-mile route. 

Chorpenning put his men to work improving the road along Simpson’s route and he had stations built every 25 miles or so along the entire length. Chorpenning personally traveled to Concord, New Hampshire to supervise the construction of specially built rugged Concord Stagecoaches and these swaying, rumbling, red mail coaches began taking mail over the route.

Although Chorpenning dutifully got the mail through, his venture was an epic failure financially in large part to the US Government agreeing to a contract and then making partial payments. They eventually terminated Chorpenning’s contract after he had laid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to set the line up. This ruined Chorpenning financially. He went on to battle the federal government in court for years and years. 

Ever the opportunists, Russell, Majors and Waddell, sensed Chorpenning’s imminent demise and stepped in with their pony idea where, according to author Arthur Chapman, they would use horses and men to form a veritable telegraph line of flesh and blood between the muddy Mississippi River to the shining Pacific. This firm swooped in with lightning speed and took possession of all of Chorpenning’s stations, stock and improvements and even hired most of his men. 

They chose Salt Lake City for the location of the venture’s headquarters as it was the largest city between St. Joseph and Sacramento. The route was also well established to that point and known to them due to the freighting business they were doing for the US Army. 

Next, they put out notices in local papers throughout the west that stated “WANTED Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows Not Over 18, Must Be Expert Riders, Willing to Risk Death Daily. Orphans Preferred. Wages $25.00 per week.”

It was preferred that the riders not weigh over 125 pounds so that the horses would not be weighed down by a heavier rider. Minimizing weight and the load on the horse was paramount so maximum speed and endurance could be achieved.  The saddles that were used were designed for the purpose and stripped down to the frame so that they only weighed one-third the weight of a normal saddle.

A custom mail carrying pouch apparatus was also designed and it was called the “Mochila.” The Mochila was a square piece of leather, kind of like a small blanket that had 4 pouches sewn onto it, two on each side with a hole in the center so it could be draped over the saddle horn and saddle, making it super easy to change out quickly without changing the saddle. The Mochila held up to 20 pounds of mail and correspondence. The station master held a key to open the pocket and retrieve company letters and put messages in as required. 

The horses chosen for the work in this western portion of the trail were stout and sturdy California Mustangs that could tolerate the heat and challenging terrain of the desert and the mountains. Many of the riders stated that they owed their lives to these tough little mustangs that were painstakingly selected by the company horse buyers. 

These horses were well cared for and kept in great condition because when confrontation came with the Indians or bandits on the trail the riders’ first inclination was not to fight, but rather to outrun the threat because ensuring that the mail stayed on schedule was of paramount importance. These horses proved more than capable of doing so and were far superior to any ponies the Indians [Shoshone] had in the area.  

To keep the horses fresh and maintain necessary speed, the rider would change mounts every 10-12 miles. The typical route for a rider was 75-100 miles which would require at least seven changes of mounts at relay or home stations. 

It would take a rider about 10-12 hours to cover this distance on average. It is said that oftentimes, the rider would arrive at the station bleeding from the nose and mouth due to the pounding, rough punishment their bodies were subjected to by pushing their mounts so hard to make good time to the next station. 

Crummy thing of it was, that if for whatever reason the rider at the station who was to relieve you was not there, was sick or simply too afraid to go, the rider on duty would have to make that individual’s ride too, which meant another 75-100 miles in the saddle to the next home station.

There are stories of riders having to travel 300 miles or more on one ride due to Indian raids, burnt stations and riders who just quit. The Pony Riders charged down the trail through summer heat, driving rain, dust storms, blowing and drifting snow and sleet, day and night. They rode through a country where the Indians wanted to strike back against the invaders who were defiling their homelands and robbing them of natural resources along with white bandits who wanted to steal their horses, firearms, mail and whatever else the riders carried with them. 

The riders were all issued a small bible, on which they took an oath to not to use profane language or drink alcohol. They were also issued two pistols and a rifle. It is said that most riders discarded the rifle and one of the pistols so they could travel as light as possible because speed was more important than firepower out in the desert. In future articles we will get to know some of the riders who worked the line from Camp Floyd to Deep Creek and learn about some of the incredible and terrifying experiences they had out on the trail.

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