Riding The Pony Express Route

By John Turner

April 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the historic Pony Express.

Few episodes in American history and early U.S. settlement are as widely known about as The Pony Express. Perhaps that knowledge is not detailed, but certainly the heritage of delivering the mail across vast expanses of uninhabited land between Missouri and California in the 19th century is fairly well understood. The photo inset provides a perspective on the actual route of the Pony Express.

There were many routes of migration, settlement and commerce overland in the 19th century across the U.S.A. There was the Oregon Trail to settle the Northwest. There was the Chism Trail to get cattle to market from Texas through Oklahoma and Kansas. There was the Mormon Trail that ended in Salt Lake City. We’ll omit Route 66 for this article since that iconic route appeared in the 20th century.  Aside from these overland routes the only other way to get to California was a very long and treacherous route by boat around the Southern tip of South America. Remember the Panama Canal was not even thought about at this time.

The Pony Express has an outsized remembrance in history compared to its actual lifespan. It only lasted a total of 19 months from April 1860 until October 1861. This past September, I joined 750 other riders on a H.O.G.® sponsored event that retraced the path taken by Pony Express Riders from St. Joe, MO (the eastern terminus of the route) to Sacramento, CA (the westernmost point of the route). The actual route taken covered over 1900 miles. The mail of the Pony Express would take (only) 10 days to get from St. Joe to Sacramento versus the normal 30 days or longer. The mail of course travelled in both directions, but our ride takes the East to West direction.

Now we could make the ride on our iron horses much faster than even 10 days if we chose to do so, but there is something to be said about stopping to “smell the roses” along the way.  My perspective on rides is not just to ride a route to put miles on my bike, but to take in as much of the history, geology or people I might meet along the way.

The Pony Express riders did not have that luxury. Their rides were flat out gallop through rain, snow, sandstorms, tornadoes, desert heat and mountain cold. We were also joined in the entire ride by executives of Harley Davidson including the pinnacle of Harley-Davidson representation, Willie G. Davidson. Now I ask you, what other manufacturer of anything will have that level of association with their customers? Bravo, Harley-Davidson!

Even today this ride is a worthy challenge for any who wish to attempt it. What you are getting here is the highly condensed version should you want to retrace this historic route. The National Park Service even has a publication about this National Historic Trail should you wish to request it from: http://www.nps.gov/poex/index.htm.

As with any enterprise, recruitment was essential. The Pony Express vigorously recruited “orphans” for their ranks. They also took an oath not to drink spirits while in the employment of the Pony Express. Thankfully the 750 of us did not have to meet those stringent requirements or constraints.

The people you meet along a journey of this sort are as meaningful as the journey itself. I met John and Ruth Craine. Now John and Ruth are not your typical couple you may find on a journey such as this. John is Ruth’s son and she celebrated her 80th birthday along the trip. John is from Denver and his mother lives in Columbia, MO.

John & Ruth Craine

Now get out your map because John rode his Heritage Softail from Denver to Columbia to pick up his mother and then rode to St. Joe, MO for the beginning of their ride. I don’t know about you, but I could never picture my mother riding with me for 1 mile let alone over 2000 miles they would travel together along the journey.

Back to the ride

Our journey takes us initially from St. Joe across the Missouri River along what is now U.S Hwy 36.  We are heading to our first official stop along the way in North Platte, NE. The Historical trail follows the Little Blue River upstream and then we will eventually come to the North Platte River near Kearney, NE.  Remember the Pony Express riders had to change horses at stations built along the trail every 10 – 15 miles. You will come across many of the preserved station sites along the way. Famous names like Marysville, KS dot the trail as a result of these stations. The ponies of the route were chosen because of their breeding for the particular part of the route they were to be ridden. All of them were driven hard by the riders and 10 – 15 miles at full gallop was an extreme measure. Thankfully, our iron steeds can go much farther than that distance before we need to refresh them with fuel.

From North Platte, NE we headed west along the North Platte River  which parallels U.S. Hwy 26, to the imposing landmark of Chimney Rock and Scottsbluff for which the town of Scottsbluff, NE gets its name. These landmarks were significant to our Pony Express riders and to those settlers in wagon trains of the Oregon Trail.  But our journey is heading much farther on this day. We head northwest to Casper, Wyoming before we get to rest for the day. If you think of Nebraska as a flat, corn filled State then you have not been to western Nebraska. Side trips will even take you to places where prehistoric mammals lived in the hills of western Nebraska in a time when the area was more like an African Savannah. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is a pleasant and lonely ride north on Nebraska State Hwy 26 which leaves the official trail in Mitchell, NE just about 10 miles west of Scottsbluff. We will leave the relative tranquility of our two lane roads and join I-25 North to follow the North Platte River on into Casper, WY. Somewhere along the route the North Platte River just becomes the Platte River. We are not on a boat so that does not really matter other than to understand the obstacles that riders faced in the 1800’s.

Chimney Rock near Scottsbluff, NE

Upon leaving Casper, Wyoming our next destination is Rock Springs, Wyoming. We travel in a northwest direction to avoid the Great Divide Basin and therefore only have to cross the Continental Divide one time rather than twice if the more southerly route to Rock Springs is taken. If you want to take a side trip then the Wind River Canyon leading to the town of Thermopolis, Wyoming is a must do. The Wind River Canyon gets its name from the Indian tribe of the area and not the canyon cut by the Bighorn River. Interestingly, the Bighorn River flows north for hundreds of miles to join the Yellowstone River which in turn then empties into the magnificent Missouri River near Williston, ND.  If you get to take this excursion to Thermopolis you will find the World’s Largest Mineral Hot Spring. You will have to back track down the Wind River Canyon to rejoin the Pony Express route, but it is only a 60 mile round trip so the effort is worth the time spent. You will still get to Rock Springs in time for happy hour if you didn’t dither too long in the morning leaving Casper.

Once in Rock Springs, Wyoming the next major settlement will be Salt Lake City. There is the opportunity to take a side trip southward through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and then back north to rejoin the historical path of the Pony Express. That is a diversion worth the time should you decide to make that detour. Winding and weaving through the Wasatch

Wind River Canyon

mountains to reach the valley that the Mormons call their home is spectacular in its own right.

Salt Lake City is the last major settlement along the old Pony Express route until you get to Carson City, Nevada. Now MapQuest® will quickly tell you that this can be a journey of nearly 600 miles depending on the exact route you might take. I chose to take the more southerly route of U.S. 50, (i.e. The Loneliest Road) just to say I’ve done it. Most of our 750 riders did the same, thereby jumping off the more northerly route of the Pony Express. A word of caution here. If you are riding through the small hamlets that dot this route, be very attentive to the speed limits as they drop from 70 mph on the typical two lane road to 55, 45, 35 and 25 almost as quickly as you can blink an eye. The local law enforcement is just waiting to separate you from some of your income if you exceed those limits by even ONE mph.

The not so “Loneliest Road” anymore!

Now in Carson City you have arrived at a location that has just about every deviation one may wish, from gambling casinos to brothels. Before you get to Carson City you may want to make your way north to Virginia City. This was the heart of Silver Country in the 1800’s. The Comstock Lode was the richest deposit of silver ore ever found and probably still ranks as the tops in the world.  You can even take a short hike into an old silver mine if that is your desire. Virginia City is a town where Mark Twain once wrote for the local newspaper and during this time wrote the novel “The Incredible Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. So history abounds in this little town where it seems the hands of time have all but stopped and the architecture of the era is well preserved.

The terrain of this area is sparse with trees today. But in the 1800’s this was a well forested area. The trees were clear-cut to the tune of over 80 million board feet of timber to support the underground mines of the Comstock. To get the silver out of the ore, miners used some very nasty chemicals that even today have effects on the environment.

Our travels are not over yet because we still have to get to Sacramento with the mail. From Carson City you will travel north to what is today Reno, NV via U.S. 395 and then head west on I-80 to Cross the Sierra Nevada Range at Truckee, CA.

If you have the time you should take the drive on out U.S. 50 West to Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine Lake in the World. You can drive all the way around the Lake in about 4 hours and take in such sights as Heavenly Valley, Kings Beach and Emerald Bay. If you decide to rejoin the Pony Express route via California 89 north, you will pass by the venue of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, Squaw Valley. Far from being uninhabited, the lake itself is as pristine as the day western explorers discovered it due to strict environmental standards for all craft that ply the cold deep waters of the lake. Besides being clear and obviously cold all year long, Lake Tahoe never freezes over even in the harshest of winters.

Settlers of the 1800’s had to be very conscious of the passage of time and the point in time they left the relative civilization of Kansas City or St. Joseph, MO. If they left too late in the year and they could not be across the Sierra Nevada Range before winter snows set in then results such as the infamous “Donner Party” were likely to befall the travelers. The mountain passes would become too thick with snow to do anything but hunker down. When humans get hungry enough they will engage in a practice unthinkable under normal circumstances. Of course we mean cannibalism.

A side note here: Of the individuals that became meals for other starving settlers, only the single men were dinner. The family units of the Donner Party did not befall the same fate.

The old Pony Express Trail basically follows Interstate 80 into Sacramento, now only about 80 some odd miles to the west and the end of the journey. The mail is delivered. The postage is cancelled. Now only 3000 miles back home for me, if I didn’t take any side trips, which of course I did. You are close to Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, The Mojave Desert and the lights and spectacle of Las Vegas beckon for those who wish to part with more of their money.

As I mentioned early on in the article, The Pony Express only lasted a total of 19 months. At the same time a transcontinental telegraph line was being constructed by a competing company, whose name shall remain anonymous. On the very next day after completion of the telegraph line, The Pony Express faded into history. The telegraph a technological marvel allowing communication at near the speed of light vastly eclipsed even the marvelous accomplishments of The Pony Express. The Pony Express was now an obsolete effort.

Sunset and moonrise in Barstow, CA. Only 3000 miles to home!

And so it goes. Nothing stays the same. Today with the conveniences of instantaneous information, it is hard to comprehend how long it took for simple communications to take place. But Moore’s Law was as much a part of evolution and the critical nature of information far before Gordon E. Moore, (co-founder of Intel Corporation) postulated the bending curve of innovation.