Chorpenning’s Contribution to California Overland Mail

“In 1850 the Post Office Department issued the first contracts for overland mail service between Independence, Missouri, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The following year, it extended postal delivery west to Sacramento, California. From 1851 to 1860 George W. Chorpenning, Jr., an energetic Pennsylvania entrepreneur, controlled the Utah-California segment of the overland route. For nine years, he surmounted successive disasters, only to fall prey to congressional squabbles, a skinflint postmaster general, the machinations of the Pony Express, and his own cupidity or inadequacy. Benignly ignored by Congress and the post office, Chorpenning nonetheless fulfilled his contracts and demonstrated the efficiency of a direct central overland route to and from California. Despite his ultimate failure, Chorpenning blazed a trail for the Pony Express, the Union Telegraph, and the Overland Stage Company . . .

“Chorpenning’s efforts to establish a central overland mail service have generally been discounted as endeavors “of a ruder type,” when compared with the Pony Express. Although he established the first scheduled mail service over what later became the preferred route for the telegraph, Overland Stage, and railroad, that service rarely met the terms of his contract. Nor was he the perpetually questing frontiersman that he later projected to Congress. Subcontractors conducted the actual operation of the mail line, while Chorpenning spent most of his time as a comfortable habitue of Washington, D.C.

“Whether the loss of his contract in 1860 was the result of the machinations of ruthless competitors, or simply a classic case of undercapitalization, Chorpenning made a genuine contribution to opening transcontinental communication. He instituted, and for nine years maintained, regular mail delivery between California and Salt Lake City; he introduced wheeled transportation to the western section of the overland mail; and he reoriented the Utah-California route to a shorter, safer, and more dependable trace. Like many other entrepreneurs, Chorpenning saw opportunity on the Far Western frontier and was willing to gamble. His ultimate failure appears as yet another example of an ambitious man’s reach exceeding his grasp.”