George Chorpenning’s ‘Jackass Mail’ comtinued
“The World is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”
The only way to truly appreciate the incredible feats that pioneers and early entrepreneurs achieved, you have to get out on the landscape and travel the long, bumpy, dusty miles of the dirt roads or cross portions of the desert and hike through the mountains on foot. Only then will your horizon be broadened to the point where you can fathom just how incredible some of our predecessors’ accomplishments were.
To give a better idea of just how dedicated the men of the Jackass Mail were, consider the following story.
In February of 1852 a party of 5 men carrying the mail for Chorpenning, left California with 10 horses and mules. The winter that year was extreme and all the animals froze to death along the trek. The men lived on mule meat and went 4 days without a shred of food, covering 200 miles on foot through the snowy desert and staggered into Salt Lake City with the mail on their backs. Failure was simply not an option for these men.
Chorpenning was constantly searching for a shorter route to California. When he heard about Simpson’s preliminary exploration in the fall of 1858 where Simpson made it out as far as Shortcut (Dugway) Pass, Chorpenning, Howard Egan and several others explored their own route west and by Nov. 21, 1858, 300 head of cattle and 50 wagons departed Salt Lake City heading west to establish Chorpenning’s new line. By the spring of 1859, Chorpenning had a good stage road under construction all the way to Ruby Valley. Along this route he built new stations every 20-25 miles. It was no easy task carving stations out of the Wilderness and several reports state that many of the station sites were not chosen for the resources in the area but rather they were chosen simply on distance between stations.
Chorpenning, in his claim against the Government for breach of contract, described what it took to outfit the stations and his line:
“Each station required 4-6 men to protect the stock and defend it against attacks by Indians. At least 4 saddle animals with bridles, blankets and spurs and a first-class wagon with six good ‘team mules’ with harness were also required. The wagon was loaded with supplies such as coffee, sugar, molasses, vinegar, bacon, pork, beans, rice, spices, cooking and tableware, shovels, picks, axes, scythes, rakes, forks, saws, hatchets, nails, picket pins, pails, water casks, ropes, horseshoes, wagon grease, grindstone, bedding etc. Add to this the wages and subsistence of the men from 3-4 months while reaching their destination and the cost of each station building with at least 15-20 head of additional horses, mules and cattle. Stations were spaced about 20 miles apart over a line between 600-700 miles long. My line was stocked under my supervision at a cost of $200,000.00.”
When you read historical accounts and descriptions of the so-called stations that Chorpenning constructed you wonder if the above statement is accurate. One thing is for certain, Chorpenning put his heart and soul into his mail contract. He personally explored his route and sometimes carried the mail himself. He supervised hundreds of miles of route improvements like grading passes and bridging over creeks and sloughs along the trail and he even traveled to Concord, New Hampshire to oversee the construction of 25 new “Concord Stages” that would rumble over the route in the late 1850’s.
In the summer of 1859, Horace Greeley crossed the Great Basin on one of Chorpenning’s stages which was driven by Hank Monck. Greeley captured his experiences in his book “An Overland Journey. ‘’ His notes allow us to take a peek back in time across the centuries and study Chorpenning’s line in Western Utah a little more closely. Greeley mentioned Camp Floyd in his journal and that Captain Simpson was out along the route surveying and conducting improvements. He also mentioned that some of Chorpenning’s deputies, one of which was Howard Egan, were out along the route studying the feasibility of using Simpson’s southern route which the Pony Express would eventually follow.
Greeley noted a station at Meadow Creek and that what we now know as Lookout Pass was extremely rocky. He stopped for the night at Simpson Springs and then was surprised in the morning to find that the same team of mules would be utilized to pull the coach again which leads one to believe that the line was not well stocked at that point. What I find particularly interesting is Greeley’s experience at the next sub-station at the foot of Dugway.
Greeley observed, “The Station Keeper here lives entirely alone, that is when the Indians will let him…. seeing a friendly face but two times a week when the mail stage passes one way or the other. He deeply regretted his lack of books or newspapers”.
Greeley went on to chastise Chorpenning by name stating that if the major would spend even $100 on some newspapers and journals and distribute them to his stations along the line, he would save $1,000 or more by keeping good men in his employ. Greeley made mention of the mail station at Fish Springs and another station at the south end of the Deep Creek Range in Pleasant Valley. Chorpenning’s own map that he created shows mail stations in the Utah Desert at Meadow Creek (Faust), Simpson Springs, Fish Springs and Pleasant Valley. It also notes Chorpenning’s “Dug Road” at the foot of Dugway Pass.
Simpson gets a ton of credit for exploring the desert all the way to the Carson City area and back in 1859 for feasibility of a wagon road, but it is important to point out that he was following Chorpenning’s wagon road all the way through what is now Utah in 1859 making notes of Chorpenning’s improvements along the way. Simpson noted that the accommodations at Simpson’s Springs were a Sibley tent set on a circular stone wall, made mention of the work occurring to improve the road at Dugway Pass, mentioned a “thatched shed” for a station at Fish Springs and a log house station in Pleasant Valley.
Chorpenning was not as well known as Russell, Majors & Waddell, Ben Holladay, Wells Fargo, Simpson, or even Howard Egan but he was the first man to carry the mail across the barren wastes of desert in what would become Utah and Nevada establishing regular monthly mail service across one the most inhospitable high desert environments. He was truly a pioneer in transportation of mail, freight and passengers during the California gold rush but all of these efforts would leave Chorpenning penniless in the end as he bankrupted himself trying to keep the trail open.
The Indians were very upset with the intrusion of his line into their domain and made him pay dearly for this violation of their home range. All told he lost his partner, 15 employees, hundreds of mules and horses and horrendous amounts of property to the Indians. Then, to make matters worse, the good old federal government, the Post Office Department in particular, failed in Chorpenning’s opinion to live up to their agreements and only partially funded tasks that Chorpenning laid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete when his largest contract was for well over $400,000. As a result, he couldn’t pay his employees and men like Snowshoe Thompson who worked so hard, literally risking his life in Sierra Mountain blizzards to get the mail through, never saw a penny for their service.
In late 1859 the whole system began to break down due to lack of sufficient payments from Congress. Therefore, many of the men at the remote stations “attached” the station stock and company property and sold them for wages due. Chorpenning believed politics was involved in his line’s difficulties and that all of his troubles were “hatched up” by his enemies to get the mail contract out of his hands.
To add insult to injury, William H. Russell, who was very well connected politically, worked behind the scenes to undermine Chorpenning, claiming that he was not fulfilling his contract and that the mail was taking too long to be delivered and was instrumental in getting his contract canceled.
After Chorpennings contract was voided, Russell, Majors and Waddell swooped in, occupied, seized and took possession of his line, property and stations and even hired many of his men. These men utilized all of Chorpenning’s holdings to begin operation of the Pony Express which would run until 24 October 1861 when the telegraph wires were connected in Salt Lake City. For the next several years the Concord Stagecoaches rumbled across our deserts until 10 May 1869 when the rails of the Trans-Continental railroad were connected at Promontory after which Chorpenning’s route fell relatively silent, closing a fantastic, wild and crazy chapter in the history of the opening of the West.
Chorpenning spent a great portion of his later life fighting Congress for compensation in one of the longest and most hotly contested lawsuits ever filed against the Government. His case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court but he lost his case and therefore was never compensated.
When the Civil War broke out, it is said that at the personal request of Abraham Lincoln, Chorpenning organized the 1st and 2nd Maryland Infantry and attained the rank of colonel during the war. He eventually died in 1894 and his obituary hailed him as “The first man to carry the mails across the Continent”.
I sure would have liked to sit on the porch with old grandpa George Chorpenning in the late 1880’s in Somerset, New York and listen to the fascinating, exciting and terrifying tales of adventure that this incredible man had out in our west desert.
If you would like to follow Chorpenning’s trail and visit some of his lonely outposts, follow Utah Highway 36 south out of Tooele to the tiny hamlet of Faust just north of Vernon. Turn right here on the Pony Express National Historic Trail and follow this route as far west as your heart desires.
Over 100 miles of dusty, rocky, dirt roads, old stations, wild horses, tumbleweeds, dust devils and wonderful desert mountain scenery await the modern-day adventurer. Just make sure that you have a spare tire, plenty of water, plenty of food, proper clothing and a good map. The desert is still a mean and unforgiving place so be prepared, use caution and go look at a similar sky, sunset or trail and think about how over 160 years ago, you may have encountered the “Jackass Mail” along this route.