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Sunday, April 27, 2003

Daring runs through Solano delivered

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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During the early years of the Gold Rush, settlers were faced with a society that as yet could not offer many of the services they had been used to back East, such as banking and postal service.

Settlers felt very much cut off from the rest of the United States. Mail had to be brought “around the Horn,” advertised as taking a minimum of 30 days from New York to reach San Francisco. In reality, it often took several months.

In 1858, John Butterfield, an associate of the new banking firm of Wells Fargo & Co., established an overland mail route from Little Rock, Arkansas to Los Angeles and on to San Francisco. The first trip, undertaken in the fall of that year, took 23 days. Other ventures followed, but none could deliver mail rapidly and reliably.

While the public expected telegraph and railroad to arrive in California eventually, the looming Civil War led to an increased demand for a faster mail service.

The idea to establish such a service went back to 1854, when newly elected Senator W. M. Gwin undertook the long journey from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. A standard joke of the day claimed that a Congress member’s term might have ended before he ever reached the capital.

On this journey, Senator Gwin met B. F. Ficklin, general superintendent of the overland freighting company, Russell, Majors & Waddell. Between them, they came up with the idea for a new express mail service. Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Senator Gwin proposed a bill supporting a weekly mail express from St. Louis to San Francisco.

While this particular idea never was developed further, the owners of Russell, Majors & Waddell eventually developed an amazing and adventurous experiment: the Pony Express.

By late 1859, railway development had reached St. Joseph, Missouri. Between there and San Francisco lay 2,000 miles of wild, undeveloped country, populated only by Indian tribes.

William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William Bradford Waddell proposed a delivery service that would run twice a week and transport letters via telegraph and pony express coast to coast in 10 days. Their freight and stage company was called the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company C.O.C. and P.P, of which the Pony Express was a subsidiary.

While they were aware that the Pony Express would not be a profitable business, they did hope eventually to receive the lucrative United States mail contract for California.

Developing this mail system was an amazing feat, undertaken in the first two months of 1860. Around 190 stations needed to be established, from five to 20 miles apart, complete with several employees for most stations. More than 400 horses, specially selected for speed and hardiness, had to be bought and distributed along the route and, most important, more than 100 riders had to be hired for the arduous and dangerous task.

While the often-quoted advertisement - “Wanted: young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen, must be expert riders willing to risk death daily, orphans preferred. Wages 25 dollars a week. Apply Central Overland Express,” seems to be a myth, the company did place some form of advertisement to attract riders.

Most riders indeed were young and lightweight 125 pounds seems to have been the maximum weight allowed. Between 80 and 100 riders operated at any one time, altogether, more than 200 names are known. Their age ranged widely, though most men were in their late teens or early twenties. Legend has it that the youngest pony express rider ever to make the trip was Bronco Charlie Miller at age 11.

They carried the mail, written on thin parchment, in their specially designed saddlebag, the so-called mochilla. The fee to send a letter was an astronomical 5 dollars per 1/2 ounce.

April 3, 1860 was the grand day of the first trip. The citizens of St. Joseph had congregated at the Patee House to see the first rider off. Alexander Majors presented the rider, most likely Henry Wallace, with a Bible and had him swear an oath not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that was considered incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman.

One of the letters in this first mail package to leave St. Joseph was a congratulatory message from President Buchanan to the Governor of California. It had arrived by telegraph in St. Joseph from Washington that same morning. From here it took 10 days to reach Sacramento on April 13, 1860 at 5:25 p.m. A large crowd awaited the last rider, William Hamilton, celebrating him with much bell ringing, flag waving, shouting and gun firing.

Hamilton caught the steamer Antilope and arrived in San Francisco shortly after midnight on April 14. Once again, a large crowd waited, complete with band and several fire companies, to accompany him and his pony to the Alta Telegraph Company on Montgomery Street.

The first trip east to start from San Francisco also set off from the office of the Alta Telegraph Company. Likely accompanied by a similar celebration as had taken place in St. Joseph, rider James Randall set off at 4 p.m. at a gallop to board the Sacramento River steamer boat.

The fastest ride ever took seven days and 17 hours, with the riders carrying President Lincoln’s inaugural address.

Each rider on the relay was expected to ride somewhere around 75 miles, often at speeds of up to 10 miles per hour. This speed made frequent horse changes necessary. Three types of stations existed. At Home Stations, riders could not only exchange their horse, but also find accommodations while waiting for their next connecting ride back. Swing stations provided only a fresh horse. Way stations solely existed to drop mail off.

At first, the mail went out twice a week, but soon the trips were taken daily except Sundays.

Despite the hazards of riding through the wild country, only one rider ever was killed and only one mailbag lost during the 19 months that the Pony Express existed.

Nonetheless, accidents occurred and some riders were delayed. The first mixup occured on the second westbound trip, to the last rider, Sam Hamilton. While Hamilton reached Sacramento as expected on Friday, April 23, 1860, he missed the evening steamer to San Francisco. The next boat was not due until Monday, and Hamilton decided instead to cut across country along the stagecoach trail and ride through the night. This was not part of the regular route and therefore did not have established Pony Express stations.

After crossing the Sacramento River and riding through the tule swamps, Hamilton reached Putah Creek and his first station, Solano House, a stagecoach stop near present day Davis. His next stop was Elijah Silvey’s tavern and rest stop in Silveyville.

Around 4 a.m., Hamilton finally reached Vacaville, where he stopped at E.F. Gillespie’s store, at the corner of Merchant and Main Street. Today, the Heritage House Cafe sits on this spot.

From Vacaville, he made his way to the next stop at Rockville, with its stage depot and blacksmith shop. His final stop was the Solano Hotel & Livery Stable, operated by F. P. Weinmann, in Benicia. He arrived there at 7 a.m. Equipped with a fresh pony, Benicia resident Thomas J. Bedford then took the mochilla from Hamilton and boarded the ferry to Martinez. He rode to Oakland where he boarded the ferry to San Francisco.

In all, twenty riders missed their connection in Sacramento, two in 1860 and 18 in 1861, forcing them to add this grueling night trip through Solano County. Memorial markers erected in 1997 by the Pony Express Trail Association at each location serve as a reminder of their daring exploits.

With the meeting of the eastern and western telegraph lines in Salt Lake City in November 1861, the end came for the Pony Express. Though short-lived and a financial disaster for the company, its story has become part of California’s history.

This Sunday, April 27, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Old Town Cordelia will celebrate its Heritage and Railroad Day, which includes the reenactment of a Pony Express rider.