Majors remembered more than thirty years later that Senator Gwin urged Russell to experiment with the so-called Central Route to prove its viability. The competition in those days was the Southern Route, or Butterfield Overland Mail Company Route, the Oxbow, which dipped from Missouri to California via El Paso, Texas, and the Southwest. It took twenty-one days-and that was good time-to move mail along this line. A central route-much shorter-would cross the West in a straighter path, linking the Missouri River with Salt Lake City and continuing to California.
Russell, Majors & Waddell was already operating a stage line between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City. Gwin wanted Russell to start an experimental fast-mail service, via horseback, over the same line, and from Salt Lake City on to Sacramento. Majors noted that Gwin and other proponents of this venture were curious about the practicability of crossing the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in winter. The specifics of the Gwin-Russell discussion are not known, but what is recorded by Alexander Majors is that Russell came back from Washington in early 1860 and told his partners that he had given his word to Gwin that the freight-hauling firm would undertake this experiment. Majors recalled that both he and Waddell did not think such a venture would ever pay expenses.
“Russell … had committed himself to Senator Gwin before leaving Washington, assuring him he could get his partners to join him, and that he might rely on the project being carried through, and saying it would be very humiliating to his pride to return to Washington and be compelled to say the scheme had fallen through from lack of his partners’ confidence.”
Russell told Majors and Waddell that if the firm could demonstrate that the Central Route was practical and could be kept operating in the winter, Senator Gwin had vowed to use his influence to get a subsidy to pay the expenses of such a line. Russell had given his word, and in those days a man’s word was still his bond (and the bond of his firm, too).
And so, on Russell’s word (and Gwin’s promise), Majors and Waddell agreed to become involved in the venture that would become their legacy and their ruin. “After listening to all Mr. Russell had to say upon the subject, we concluded to sustain him in the undertaking and immediately went to work to organize what has since been known as ‘The Pony Express.’ “