The only thing more amazing than the fact that the National Pony Express Association reruns the original route each year is that people did this in the 1860s without horse trailers or smartphones.
(Top: Photo at the Schellbourne Pass handoff, courtesy of Wendy Anderson and the NPEA.)
For two years — 1860 and 1861 — the Pony Express was established to get messages from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States in a record breaking 10 days. By the end of 1861, the US had established a telegraph system that made the daring Express riders obsolete, but a group of horse history enthusiasts aren’t ready to forget the feat that was 19th century bi-coastal mail delivery.
Every June the National Pony Express Association, a group committed to preserving the stories, artifacts and historic locations of the Express alive, put together an amazing team of horses and riders to retrace the old route and ceremoniously deliver a 20 lb. mailbag (known on the trail as a mochilla) from Sacramento, California to St. Joseph Missouri.
There were spotty reenactments over the years, including an epic centennial re-ride in 1960 that included President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the governors of all the Pony Express states, but the annual re-ride was officially started by the NPEA in 1977, and has kept going every year since. They alternate traveling East or West; for the 2014 ride, the riders are headed East, and are already as far as Wyoming in just six days.
Each rider (or group of riders) must first take the original Pony Express oath, and is then charged with taking approximately a 25-mile leg of the journey. Now as it was then, the riders were expected to deliver the mail at all costs, though the dangers of isolation, thirst, trail robbery, and murder are much less a concern today!
Thanks to carefully planned hand-offs, the mochilla is traveling 24 hours a day. They are currently ahead of schedule by a few hours, and will arrive in St. Joseph in just over four days from now, June 10. The schedule is set to match the phases of the moon, so that night riders have as much natural light as possible during their adventure.
You can track the riders’ amazing reports and updates from the trail by visiting The Pony Express Home Station, which has already seen some hairy moments in the form of spider bites, confusing maps, flat tires, and bucking broncos. But as the riders say, that’s all part of the fun! Or, if you live near the Pony Express route, you will find meeting point locations and schedules on the site to see the action firsthand.
Many thanks to the National Pony Express Association and Tom Crews for their help with this story, and for keeping Horse History alive.