How They Traveled


The pioneers with their Prairie Schooners weren’t the only ones on the Oregon Trail. They shared it with stagecoaches, freight wagons, mail wagons, fur trade caravans, Army troops and supply trains, dispatch and Pony Express riders, pack horses and mules, Mormon handcarts, and even the occasional herd of horses headed for the States from California. Some of the less common trail vehicles included horse-drawn carriages for the affluent and buggies of the 1849 Pioneer Line. Oddities included the 1859 Wind Wagon powered by sails, a steam wagon fiasco out of Nebraska City, and William Kiel’s funeral cortege from Missouri to Oregon, complete with hearse, for his departed son, whose body was pickled in a vat of whiskey for the journey. The Donner-Reed party was slowed by the Reed family’s oversized wagon, later described by Virginia Reed as a “Pioneer Palace Car,” with a side entrance, a stove, sprung seats, and “a large and roomy second story” for the family’s beds. The Reeds were forced to abandon the Palace Car in the Bonneville Salt Flats, where it was discovered and excavated in 1996.

Perhaps no one had a greater impact on traffic along the western trails than William Russell. An entrepreneur who spent five years on the edge of bankruptcy, Russell operated freight wagons on the Santa Fe Trail in partnership with Alexander Majors and William Waddell. With John Jones, Russell also operated the Pikes Peak Express stagecoach line from Leavenworth to Denver. Then, in 1857, he got his big break: an Army contract to haul 4.5 million pounds of supplies to Utah as Col. Albert Sidney Johnston took over as governor from Brigham Young. It took 41 wagon trains to move the Army’s supplies.

The Pikes Peak Express consolidated with the Central Overland California in 1859, offering service from St. Joe and Independence to Sacramento. That same year, Russell bought out the Mormon mail contract from Independence to Salt Lake City. However, stiff competition from the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, which benefited from government subsidies that the competition lacked, led some observers to rechristen the C.O.C.P.P. Express Company’s initials as standing for the “Clean Out of Cash and Poor Pay Express Company.”

Then came the venture that would put Russell permanently into both bankruptcy and the history books: in a meeting with Frederick Bee, who had strung telegraph wires from San Francisco to Sacramento, and California Senator Gwin late in 1859, the decision was made to organize the Pony Express. “The Pony” began operation on April 3, 1860, connecting the telegraph stations at St. Joe and Sacramento and making it possible to send a message from New York to San Francisco in only ten days. The Pony followed the Oregon Trail from Kansas through Wyoming; emigrants waved and cheered on the riders as they passed. The General Office was the Patee House Hotel in St. Joe. The stables in St. Joe and many of the station houses were financed by Ben Holladay.

The total cost to set up the Pony was about $100,000. They purchased 500 Kentucky-bred horses and California mustangs of superior stamina for $175 each, up to $150 more than the normal cost of riding horses. They hired eighty riders — “young skinny fellows, unmarried” — for $50 a month plus board. They maintained 157 Pony Express Stations, of which 95 were built for the Pony and 62 were existing stage stops. There was a station every 10 or 15 miles, about an hour’s travel at a horse’s top sustainable speed, and most were sited to split the distance between the stagecoach stops, which were typically about 25 miles apart. Mail left St. Joe and Sacramento once a week and cost $5 for a half-ounce letter. Mail shipments were later increased to twice a week, and the cost came down to $1.

Each rider carried a leather mochila with four flaps. Riders rode three to six mounts from 45 to 90 miles between home stations and then returned. The goal was to deliver a letter in ten days. The fastest delivery on record was President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, which took seven days and seventeen hours to get from St. Joe to Sacramento.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell filed for bankruptcy in 1861, following the completion of transcontinental telegraph lines. Financier Ben Holladay took over management and closed down the Pony Express while expanding the stage and freight lines. He continued to close way stations as the Union Pacific passed them by during its construction. In 1869, he sold his lines to Wells, Fargo and Company and moved to Oregon. There, Holladay went into the railroad building business with the Willamette Falls Portage Railroad at Oregon City, and later the Oregon and California Railroad from Portland to Sacramento.