Reporting from Sacramento, Salt Lake City and St. Joseph, Mo.
Bill Gates' career as a Harvard undergrad. Elizabeth Taylor's second, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth marriages. Sarah Palin's tenure as Alaska governor. Barack Obama's stint as U.S. senator from Illinois.
As brief as they were, each of these events lasted longer than the Pony Express. Yet here I stood at the Pony Express National Museum in gritty St. Joseph, Mo., a few blocks from the banks of the Missouri River, surrounded by Pony maps, Pony portraits, Pony artifacts, Pony dioramas, Pony mannequins, a vintage neon PONY EXPRESS MOTEL sign and a reconstructed Pony stable.
"Danger has intrigue to it," museum volunteer Bill Keck was telling me. "And what these riders went through! We hang on to those kinds of things."
In its 19 months of operation in 1860-61, the Pony Express relied on scores of brave or foolish young men and hundreds of barely broken horses to deliver the speediest mail service in North America, despite forbidding topography, nasty weather, stampeding bison and hostile Native Americans. At a time when most mail took three weeks or longer to travel the nearly 2,000 miles from Missouri to California, the relaying Pony riders could do it in 10 days, sometimes less. And they always started in St. Joe.
So here I was, 150 years later, ready to learn how a failed business — an estimated $400,000 in debt when it shut down — was born again as one of America's best-loved Western stories.
No, I didn't have a horse tied up outside. If I were that devoted to the Pony Express, I'd be joining the hundreds of spur-wearing faithful who plan to cover the entire route in a celebratory "re-ride" caravan beginning June 6 in Sacramento. They'll do it in 20 days, a lazy, west-to-east stroll compared with the 10-day blitzes that the National Pony Express Assn. stages in nonsesquicentennial years.
Me, I rode 737s and rental cars all the way. Three cities, east to west, four days. When you're plying a 20th century trade (newspaper reporting) in search of a 19th century story, every little bit of modern technology helps, especially if you also have a 21st century electronic beast, latimes.com/travel, to feed.
In 1860, St. Joseph, in northwestern Missouri, about 50 miles from Kansas City, was where "civilization" ended and the Wild West began. The railroad tracks stopped in St. Joe (which got its name from founding trader Joseph Robidoux), and so did the telegraph lines. The town stretched over several abrupt hills, giving pleasant views of the river, and the streets downtown were named for some of Robidoux's many children. About 9,000 people lived here, including numerous wheelwrights, saddle-makers and dry-goods merchants, many Southerners with Confederate sympathies, along with an energizing number of westbound, cash-bearing, wagon-buying, supply-needing gold-seekers and settlers.
Anybody who was anybody stayed at the big, brick Patee House, the fanciest hotel west of the Mississippi, which had a barber, a ballroom and a guest roster that included journalist Horace Greeley, Mark Twain and British author-explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton.
"Other towns on the Missouri may have a grander future; I doubt that any has a finer location," Greeley wrote after his 1859 visit.
In April of the next year, the first Pony rider probably mounted a horse from the wooden stables at 9th and Penn streets (now the site of the Pony Express National Museum), then collected his load from the dispatch office at the Patee House, now the Patee House Museum. Then he would have set off to catch a ferry across the Missouri into the raw territory that would soon be known as the state of Kansas.
By some accounts, that first load included just 49 letters, five private telegrams, some Eastern newspapers and a bunch of telegraphic dispatches to be printed by Western newspapers. The riders, often teenagers, typically weighed 120 pounds or less, were issued lightweight Bibles and signed an oath that said that "I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm," and so on.
Pay was $50 to $100 a month (accounts vary). They rode with pistols or a rifle or unarmed. After 25 miles or so, that first rider would trade his horse for a fresh one, and after 100 miles or so, he would hand his letters off to another rider. On they would sprint through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and finally California, except for those who died from Indian attack, exposure to the elements or just plain falling off their horses.
It was risky and, in a smelly, sweaty, flies-and-mosquitoes-by-the-cloud sort of way, romantic. On April 3, the Pony Express National Museum kicked off its sesquicentennial year with a reenactment of that first ride. Despite wind and rain, hundreds of locals and visitors showed up to cheer.
Greeley was wise to be guarded about St. Joe's future. The Civil War took its toll. Then Kansas City stole St. Joe's glory by getting the trains rerouted and building the first railroad bridge over the Missouri River. Over the decades, Kansas City boomed, and St. Joseph slowed.
In fact, St. Joe's population has been flat for the last century at about 75,000, and the Museum Hill area downtown is full of brick Victorian homes, some painstakingly restored, others as idle and weather-beaten as Roman ruins. The West's jumping-off point has been jilted.
But it has some fascinating museums.
In the Pony Express National Museum, which had almost 40,000 visitors last year and just completed an upgrade, I scanned old photos of riders David Jay (who, with his droopy mustache, looked like Daniel Day-Lewis); Pony Bob Haslam (said to have ridden 380 miles in 36 hours despite taking an arrow in the mouth and another in the arm in an Indian ambush on the way); and Bronco Charlie Miller (the youngest known Pony rider, who took to the trail as a substitute at age 11).