Notes from the Past

Transcontinental Mail in 1860 - Part I

John D. Young and the Colorado Gold Rush was published by R. R. Donnelley & Sons in 1969 as  a part of their Lakeside Press Christmas Series.  It was an edited version of a previously unpublished narrative from the The Newberry Library.

In the spring of 1860 John D. Young and six others including his brother and father succumbed to gold fever as a result of the 1858 discovery of gold in Colorado then a part of Kansas.  They left Chicago by rail taking the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad to Cairo, Illinois.  There they took a steamer down the Mississippi to Hannibal, Missouri, where they boarded the Hannibal and Saint Joseph Railroad for the trip across Missouri to Saint Joseph, the embarkation point for the wagons heading west.

Young and his party spent four days in Saint Joseph getting outfitted for the trip.  He told of seeing the Pony Express while there as follows:

I saw the arrival and departure of the first express that ever passed between St. Joseph and St. [San] Francisco.  They made a great display on starting the express.  First the dispatches are all made up and laid on the counter then the horse is brought into the office and placed facing the officer.  the letters are placed into the saddle bags.  The driver takes his seat.  The telegraph operator makes up the last dispatches from New York and Washington.  The cannon at the doors thunder the warning to the ferryboat which is in readiness to convey the messenger across the river.  And now the last minute having expired the last dispatches are placed in the bag marked with the hour and the minute of starting.  The cannon thunders out once more and before the smoke has cleared away the messenger is off swift as the best mettle of his horse can take him one at a headlong gallop through the city and then he gets on board the ferryboat.  In five minutes more he is in Kansas on the road for the Pacific.  This rider stays on his horse two hours and a half or while he is making twenty five miles.  Then there is another horse and rider waiting.  The saddlebags are changed to the fresh horse.  The new rider jumps into his seat and off again once more and so on changing about the same distance until at last they reach San Francisco in seven or eight days.  It was indeed a grand idea the interchange of news across the continent in such a short time almost equal to railroad speed the distance being about twenty hundred miles, over mountains and through deserts.


Dwight L. Smith, the editor, noted that from all the evidence that was available, Young had not seen the first departure of the Pony Express which was April 3, 1860, while Young probably arrived in St. Joseph April 19.  He also noted that the each horse covered an average of ten miles, the distance between stations.  Each rider covered between thirty five and seventy miles depending on the terrain.  The average time of the whole trip was ten days.

Young later noted an east-bound Pony Express rider who passed their wagon train going east without slowing.

(To be Continued)

 Posted April 24, 2000

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