From April 3, 1860 to November 21, 1861, mail was delivered by the Pony Express between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California utilizing a relay system between 190 stations along the route. A fresh horse was used every 12-15 miles and a new rider was used every 75-100 miles. It took 75 horses to go one-way. Approximately 1900 miles took 10-12 days in the summer and 12-16 in winter. The service had an almost perfect record. Only once did the mail not make it, and only then because the horse and rider were killed.
The Pony Express was short-lived due to the completion of a transcontinental telegraph in 1861, which could send news in just a few minutes.
Below are the remains of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station in Nevada… In March of 1860 Bolivar Roberts, J.G. Kelley and a few others built Sand Springs Pony Express Station. James McNaughton was stationmaster at Sand Springs for a while before he became a rider:
Sand Springs deserved its name… On October 17, 1860, English explorer Sir Richard Burton gave this account of the Sand Springs Station:
“…The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts; it blistered the hands. The station house was no unfit object on this scene, roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smokey fire in one corner, impure floor, the walls open to every wind and the interior full of dust. Of the employees, all loitered and sauntered about [indecipherable] as cretins except one, who lay on the ground crippled and apparently dying by the fall of a horse upon his breast bone.”
A stationmaster took care of the horses and listened for riders who would sound their horns when arriving. The men working in these stations fought loneliness, unbearable weather conditions and Indian invasions. Many were killed.
Here is one account of the life of a stationmaster:
“A plume of alkali dust races toward you across the barren, sun-baked flat. Quickly, the pounding of hoofbeats grows more powerful beneath your feet. The wind carries the blare from a horn across the sand and the fresh, half-breed Mustang that you hold begins to prance, eager to go. A rider, crouched over a lathered horse, suddenly sprints around a low dune, trumpets his arrival once more, and reins in beside the station’s corral. Before you can grab his horse’s bridle he has already jerked the mail pouch from his saddle and dismounted. Within moments he throws it onto the fresh horse, lifts himself into the saddle and is gone, dashing east toward Sand Pass.”
Referencing the picture of the Sand Springs ruins above, the center room was probably used for battery storage when the Transcontinental Telegraph Company occupied the building.
The northwest room had a stone well and a small firepit for blacksmithing and cooking.
The larger rooms were used to store equipment and supplies, and as a stable and corral for the horses. Pony Express riders used small, fast horses while the freighters used larger, stronger horses such as Morgans. Draft horses such as Clydesdales were uncommon since they required so much food and water.
The station’s occupants could not rely on the desert to provide food. Their diet consisted mainly of items such as beef, mutton, goat, dried fruit, beans and canned goods brought in by supply wagons.
Despite the Pony Express being driven out of business by Transcontinental Telegraph in November 1861, the telegraph and the Overland Stage Company continued to make use of the station throughout the 1860s. Other freight companies, such as Wells Fargo, occasionally used the building until about 1900.
The Riders Of The Pony Express
Riders had to swear they would drink “no intoxicating liquor”. However, booze bottles found along the trail demonstrate that this oath was not always honored on the isolated route.
Famed rider Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam rode 380 miles round-trip in 36 hours. It was billed as the longest and fastest run in Pony Express history.
At age 15, William “Buffalo” Cody made the longest non-stop ride when his relief rider was killed. He rode 322 miles in just over 21 hours, using 21 horses, over the most dangerous territory on the route.
Average Age: 20
Youngest Rider: 11
Oldest Rider: 40+
Monthly Pay: $50-$100
Two Navy Colt revolvers & rifle
Horn to sound arrivals
Bible for courage
Mochila pouch to carry mail
Some riders carried less so they weren’t overloaded…
Here is an account from J.G. Kelley of one of the more exciting times he rode into Sand Springs:
“One day I trotted into Sand Springs covered with dust and perspiration. Before I reached the station, I saw a number of men (Indians) running toward me, all carrying rifles, and one of them with a wave of his hand said, ‘All right, you pooty good boy, you go.’ I did not need a second order, and as quickly as possible rode out of their presence, looking back, however, as long as they were in sight, and keeping my rifle handy.”
The Horses Of The Pony Express
Between 400-500 horses were picked for their great spirit and endurance. These tough horses could carry riders with little worry about food or water. They galloped over rocks, desert sands and snow and they outran Indian attacks. Breeds like Morgans and Thoroughbreds often were used on the eastern end of the route; Pintos in the middle; and Mustangs in the west.
Abandoned and forgotten, over the years the Sand Springs site was almost completely buried by drift sand. The station was not rediscovered until 1975.
And what about all of this sand at Sand Springs? The name comes from a literal mountain of sand, appropriately named Sand Mountain, behind the Sand Springs station.
Sand Mountain traveled far to get to where it is now… The journey started 4,000 years ago as ancient Lake Lahontan began to dry up. Sand was carried by the wind 40 miles north from the Walker River delta and dropped into the bowl-shaped basin in which Sand Springs is found. Over time the mountain grew…it is now over 600 feet high. The same winds that created it continue to reshape it every day.
When the sand is dry and moving down slope, one may hear a sound like a kettle drum or pipe organ. Sand crystals begin to vibrate, causing the mountain to “boom”. Sand Mountain is one of only three “booming” dunes in the United States.