(This commentary aired during Cityscape on May 17th)
One hundred and fifty years ago a man on horseback took off for the west from St. Joseph, Missouri. With a pouch full of letters to deliver, he was making history - and becoming an icon of the American West.
That was the beginning of the Pony Express.
Iíve found some dispute over the identity of that first courier, but we do know he was an expert rider, skinny and wiry, not more than eighteen years old. Thatís from a recruitment ad. The ad further stated that applicants must be willing to risk death every day and that orphans were preferred. Despite the ominous implications of the ad, no shortage of recruits was reported.
This speedy mail service Ė ten days from St. Joe to Sacramento Ė didnít prove profitable, and it lasted only eighteen months. The Wells Fargo company took over the final months of the Pony Express Ė but then the telegraph arrived.
No horse could compete with the speed of those telegraph wires. But no telegraph pole had the flair of that galloping Pony Express horse with its tail furled out behind and its rider bent over the reins in an eager race with time. That picture, and Wells Fargoís own six-horse stagecoach kicking up the dust of a frontier town, is universal in its appeal and as enduring as both history and imagination can make it.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society