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Pony Express

Johnny Fry rode the first and last legs on the Pony Express in 1860. Photo courtesy St. Joseph Museum.The Pony Express began operation on April 3, 1860, and lasted just 18 months. The goal was to provide a mail route from St. Joseph to California. Averaging less than 10 days per run on the 2,000-mile route, traveling through the storms and heat of summer, and the snow and cold of winter, through American Indian lands, and rough terrain, the Pony Express became one of the West's most colorful stories.

In the hope of winning a million dollar government contract, the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company run by William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, developed a mail delivery system that was faster than the overland stage. A pouch of letters dispatched from Washington and New York on March 31, 1860, was transported by train to St. Joseph, and to be carried by a succession of riders on the trek west to Sacramento, California.

Johnny Fry was one of nearly 200 young men selected to take part in an ambitious endeavor. Leaving from St. Joseph, Missouri, Fry would carry a mail pouch on the first leg of the Pony Express.

Fry was scheduled to leave the station at 5 p.m. April 3, 1860, with his parcel, but the train delivering his pouch was delayed and he did not depart until 7:15 p.m. A cannon boomed, the brass band played, and a crowd of people cheered as Fry’s mount raced from the station. They headed west to Seneca, Kansas, a distance of 80 miles with the leather “mochila” that held 49 letters, five telegrams, and special edition newspapers.

Fry’s horse galloped the short distance to the ferry, which transported them across the Missouri River. At Elwood, Kansas, they followed the trail through the wooded bottoms, across the Kickapoo reservation, and to Seneca, where another rider and horse were ready to continue the trek.

To ensure the fastest transport, Pony Express horses carried a maximum of 165 pounds, which included the 20-pound mochila and the rider whose weight could not exceed 125 pounds. Other items were a water sack, a horn to alert the station, a Bible, and two weapons: a revolver and optional rifle. Fresh horses were provided every 10 to 15 miles at stations along the trail. Two minutes was allowed to switch horses and transfer the mail pouch before heading off on the next leg. Riders were replaced every 60 to 80 miles. Though the company proved that rapid transcontinental communication was indeed possible, the contract went to the operators of the Butterfield Overland stage line.

The experiment was costly: approximately 500 horses, nearly 200 stations, a similar number of station employees, and 80 riders. Even with charges of $5 per letter, the company could only recover about 10 percent of its costs. The transcontinental telegraph line, completed by the fall of 1861, sealed its doom. Fry went on to become a soldier in the Union army and was killed in 1863 in Baxter Springs in conflict with William Quantrill’s raiders.

One of the original pony express stops, Hollenberg Pony Express Station State Historic Site, is located near Hanover in Washington County and is administered by the Kansas Historical Society. 

Entry: Pony Express

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2010

Date Modified: November 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.