In the middle of the 1800s, before the U.S. got wired with telegraph, you’d send a piece of mail from the East Coast to the West and not expect it to get there for months.
A simple mail exchange of “Here’s the contract; do we have a deal?” could require a half year or more before you got a response. In the frontier beyond the Mississippi River, there were no trains, not even roads to speak of, and most mail either went over land on a creeping stagecoach or by ship around South America.
People in business, government, and journalism hated waiting that long. So you could see how the Pony Express really seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Your package was absolutely, positively guaranteed to get the nearly 2,000 miles from Sacramento to St. Louis in 10 days (15 in winter).
Even adding a few more days for the trains to take your message the rest of the way to business centers in New York or Chicago, you can still see how a one-month turnaround time could be an exciting prospect.
That’s how William Russell saw it anyway when the idea of the Central Overland Pony Express Company came to him. In order to have mail traveling at the fastest possible speed-of horses galloping in a relay race against time-he realized that was going to take hundreds of horses, scores of riders, and stations at reasonable intervals to trade horses and riders, horses every 10-15 miles, riders every 75.
He also knew that traveling through Indian territory would be dangerous. He figured that he’d have to charge a bundle per letter to make it worth his while, but he hoped that would come down once he got the government contracts.
It cost $5 per half-ounce to send a package by Pony Express in 1860, which is the equivalent of about $95 in today’s dollars. Despite the outrageous cost, the Pony Express still lost money on every letter it carried.
Worst of all, the government contracts founder William Russell expected never materialized. With some relief, Russell closed the whole thing down two days after the first coast-to-coast telegraph line went online.
In its 19 months of existence, the Pony Express delivered 34,753 pieces of mail and ended up nearly $200,000 in debt.