First Pony Express Rider from St. Jo

ABOUT THAT FIRST RIDER: MOST HISTORIANS HAVE SETTLED ON FRY, citing the memories of St. Joe residents, which were recorded years after the fact.

But Alex Carlyle is another strong candidate, and one I prefer. The best testimony in his favor is a letter from Jack Keetley, another rider for the line. Keetley, in a letter dated August 21, 1907, from Salt Lake City talked about the first ride, with a mixture of details correct and less so. He noted that Carlyle was the nephew of Ben Ficklin, the company’s superintendent; if Ficklin had any say on who would have the honor of riding out of St. Joe—and he had all the say—it would be hard to imagine him passing over his nephew.

Keetley notes that the first runs were to Guittard’s; the line was subsequently shortened to Seneca. He says that Carlyle lasted only about two months, leaving because he had consumption; Fry took his place. Keetley, who was riding on another section at the start of the service, eventually came east to replace him, with Gus Cliff the very last rider on that leg of the route.

The biggest knock on Keetley’s testimony is that it was printed in the very first book on the Pony, written by William Lightfoot Visscher. Visscher, described by one historian as an alcoholic who liked to give temperance lectures-quite a few did-was not a stickler for accuracy, and much of what he writes in the book can be sourced to his imagination.

Admittedly, the account was written long after the fact. And historians who have questioned Keetley’s veracity point out that he gets the time wrong for the start of the first ride. But what he reports was the time when it was supposed to start, something a rider elsewhere on the line would have known. He boasts that he had the longest ride-a claim common to authentic Pony riders. He mentions Fry as the next rider in line, and he had nothing to gain or lose by giving Carlyle credit. He also has many details about the Pony correct, most especially the fact that it was seen by its owners as a money loser from the start.

There are other candidates—Johnson William Richardson, who was mentioned in a St. Joe’s newspaper that week, would be the next best, and one accepted by the most thorough historians of the service, Raymond and Mary Settle. But that’s part of the lore of the Pony—you never know anything for 100 percent certain.