Significance of the Pony Express

“At this point, any criticism of the Pony Express might be considered by many Americans as unpatriotic to say the least. Nonetheless, an assessment of the significance of the C.O.C. & P.P. Express Co. has to be made—one that cuts through the myth to reality. In the author’s judgement, the Pony Express played a role in the development of transportation and communication links between the west and the east coasts, but not a very successful one. Plain and simple, the C.O.C. & P.P. Express Co. failed to provide “reliable” mail service across the country as Russell, Majors, and Waddell promised.

“Many unforeseen and known factors, contributed to Russell, Majors, and Waddell’s failure. The primary problem they did not foresee was the Pyramid Lake Indian War, which severely interrupted and then slowed Pony Express service for several months . . .

“Setting Indian depredations aside, unpredictable weather-related events actually defeated the company. Russell, Majors, and Waddell promised speedy reliable service come rain, snow, or sunshine. In good weather, the Pony Express system worked as it was designed. But during the long, hard, stormy winter of 1860-1861, actually the first real test of the system against harsh weather elements, the Pony Express system could not maintain a regular or speedy schedule, even with the help of the extension of the telegraph lines. Due to the severe winter that year, the system broke down delaying the mail for substantial periods of time, much as it had under previous mail contractors, such as George Chorpenning. According to one historian, the average time of the twenty-two midwinter trips between destination points was 13.8 days. On four of these trips, sixteen days were used between telegraph points. Additionally, one trip took seventeen days, and another trip was missed entirely. Like it or not, postmaster general Aaron V. Brown was correct in 1857 when he thought the southern route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company was superior to the central overland route because of winter travel conditions.

“On another level, the Pony Express failed as a successful business venture. The undertaking of an enterprise on a scale and size of the Pony Express by a private business was not a ‘Great Gamble’ as one author posed, but instead, it simply was an imprudent business venture. Quickly looking at the possible numbers of letters sent versus the cost of the operation, any smart businessman could recognize the disparity. Alexander Majors knew that the amount of business transacted over this line was insufficient to pay one-tenth of the expenses, to say nothing about the amount of capital invested. In Russell, Majors, and Waddell’s defense, some historians argue that the “Pony Express was not an end in itself, but a means to an end,” a legitimate business investment designed to place the firm in a favorable position to compete with the Butterfield line for the next overland mail contract. Russell, Majors, and Waddell knew it would be made obsolete by the telegraph. If this supposition were true, then the Pony Express failed here as well. In March 1861, when the overland mail contract was signed due to the exigencies of the impending Civil War, Russell, Majors, and Waddell were not in a financial position to compete with the Butterfield line, and therefore they lost out on their only chance to obtain a overland mail route contract.

“As the above arguments infer, the Pony Express’ significance in American history does not rest on the company’s capabilities. Instead, its significance is grounded in two different areas: 1) the Pony Express’ basic contribution to transportation and communication history, and 2) its very existence during a critical time period in American history.

“Clearly the Pony Express reduced the communication distance between the east and west coasts, and “speeded up news service to and from the Pacific Coast.” The Pony Express was a benefit to the public for this reason. Contemporary accounts also tend to agree that the Pony Express bound these two distant sections of the Union together before and during the Civil War. The Pony Express also fostered closer communication links between Mormon communities at Salt Lake City, and other Trans-Missouri communities and eastern states.”