Discovering History on the Pony Express National Historic Trail

By Frank Norris, NPS

More than 150 years ago, teams of Pony Express riders galloped between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California and made history in the process. Before Pony Express service began, the fastest mail service took more than three weeks to go between the Missouri River valley and California. But beginning in April 1860, Pony Express riders cut that time down to ten days or less.

What was it like to be a Pony Express rider, and what was the route like? For many years, many basic facts about Pony Express service were shrouded in mystery. Recently, however, an assemblage of journalists and historians, occasionally assisted by the NPS, have provided long-elusive answers to these questions.

Today, historians recognize that Pony Express riders in Nebraska followed much the same route as Oregon and California Trail emigrants. But much of that route - and the sites of many Pony Express stations as well - now lie under fields of corn, soybeans, and milo. Farther west, however, many stretches of the old trail still remain as county roads, and travelers heading through portions of Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada can drive over the same route as the iconic Pony Express riders.

To really get a feel for the isolation and difficulties that the Pony Express riders contended with as part of their everyday jobs, a drive west from Salt Lake City across Utah's West Desert is highly recommended. Today, the Bureau of Land Management maintains the Pony Express  route as a scenic byway. Featured along the way is a reconstructed Pony Express station, along with the archaeological remnants from other Pony Express and stage stations. The road is open to two-wheel drive vehicles. Caution is advised, however; sharp rocks in the road can flatten tires, and water along the way is either scarce or nonexistent.

 Image credit: Faith Photography

Image credit: Faith Photography

Heading west into Nevada along the route can bring on even greater challenges. Along the Pony Express corridor, most of eastern and central Nevada brings the traveler into some of the least-populated country in the Lower 48 states; Life Magazine, in 1986, dubbed nearby U.S. 50 as the "loneliest road in America," and some segments of the Pony Express route (all of which is located on a dirt road) are 60 miles north of that two-lane ribbon of pavement.

Traveling that route - mostly recommended for four-wheel-drive vehicles - takes the traveler through basin-and-range country that offers forests of pinyon and juniper alternated by vast, open valleys of Great Basin sage. Ranching is virtually the only livelihood, although the trip along U.S. 50 brings the visitor to Austin, Eureka, and other 19th-century mining towns. Both ranching and mining, however, grew up after the brief heyday of the Pony Express had come and gone; instead, Pony Express riders were a vanguard of white civilization into land that was the traditional homeland of Paiutes and the Western Shoshone. Just a month after the riders began criss-crossing the area, in fact, Paiute bands rose up and destroyed many Pony Express stations, delaying mail service for several weeks.

Today, well-prepared travelers heading out over the Pony Express Trail in western Utah, and in central and eastern Nevada, will immerse themselves in some of the most lonely, isolated country anywhere in the United States. But in its own stark way, visitors will also find some of the prettiest, most pristine scenery to be found anywhere. And if they know where to look, they will find the sites - and occasionally some remaining ruins from - the many Pony Express stations that were once scattered along the trail's right-of-way.

Learn more:
Pony Express National Historic Trail - National Park Service
National Pony Express Association
P
ony Express National Historic Trail - Bureau of Land Management

Frank Norris is a Historian with the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region.