Sixteen Dollars per Letter

There are no records of receipts, but the simple math involved in proposition tells the tale. A Pony Express rider could rarely carry more than twenty pounds of mail. Even if a courier had one hundred letters at five dollars apiece, five hundred dollars was hardly sufficient revenue to justify this expensive cross-country escapade, and rates dropped during the short duration of the service. (Root and Connelley even claim that on one run the rider carried only eight letters.) When it was all over, various critics and chroniclers of the Pony Express would estimate (educated guessing at best) that it had cost the firm sixteen dollars to move a single letter across the country, yet the rates had never been higher than five dollars a letter. This had never been a paying proposition. Even the most charitable historians of the Pony Express have acknowledged that the firm was hemorrhaging money from the evening that Johnny Frey met the Missouri bringing the first mail from back east.

Raymond Settle claimed that the Pony Express made 308 runs each way-a distance of 616,000 miles (twenty-four circumnavigations of the globe, he liked to point out). (Root and Connelley believed the Pony Express covered 650,000 miles-about 330 crosscountry trips.) Settle also claimed that 34,753 pieces of mail were carried (18,456 originated in San Francisco and 4,900 in Sacramento). But even the redoubtable Settle, who spent decades studying the Pony Express, could only guess as to the amount of money the firm lost. Settle believed it was “at least $500,000.”

“The absence of company records makes a break-down of items actually chargeable to it impossible, and the few random statements concerning it throw little light upon it. The complex activities of the company, which was also engaged in the stagecoach, express, and mail business, presents additional difficulties,” Settle added.

It so transpired that the firm of Russell, Majoes & Waddell had to pay the fiddler,” Alexander Majors recalled without providing further information except to say in his memoirs that the loss was “several hundred thousand dollars.”

Settle, sympathetic to the legacy of the firm, concluded optimistically that “the Pony Express failed in only one respect; it made no money.”