Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Significance of the Pony Express

As a boy growing up in rural northwest Missouri, St. Joseph was the nearest big city and a place of fascination to me. As a schoolboy I no doubt learned that the Pony Express started in St. Joseph, which we usually called St. Joe. For some reason, however, I grew up not knowing much about the Pony Express.
Learning about the Pony Express
Not long after moving to Liberty in 2005, June and I visited the Pony Express Museum in St. Joe and learned a lot about it then. That is a certainly a place worth visiting, and you can check it out online here.
Ms. Kathy Ridge (May 2016)
I learned the most about the Pony Express, though, from hearing Ms. Kathy Ridge give a talk about it on May 29 this year at the Memorial Day gathering at my father’s (long-closed) home church in rural Worth County, Mo. 
Ms. Ridge, a retired elementary school teacher who works as a volunteer at the Pony Express Museum, told not only interesting details about those who rode for the Pony Express but also shared something of its historical significance.
The Pony Express began operation on April 3, 1860, and was a response to the need for faster communication with people who lived in California. After the discovery of gold there in 1848, the population of Calif. grew rapidly and it became a state in 1850.
The Pony Express was made obsolete, though, with the completion of the transcontinental telegraph on October 24, 1861, and it ceased operation two days after. (The transcontinental railroad was then completed in May 1869, only 7½ years later.)
The Pony Express and the Civil War
Because of the Pony Express, people in California received news of the beginning of the Civil War just 12 days after it began, rather than weeks later as would have been the case earlier. The Pony Express helped keep California aligned with the North in spite of many Confederate sympathizers living in the state.
In addition, partly because of the Pony Express, California’s gold was secured for funding the Union forces rather than the soldiers of the South.
The Civil War threatened the operation of the Pony Express in several ways.
For example, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, the first railroad to cross Missouri, was completed in February 1859, making St. Joe the westernmost point in the U.S. accessible by rail. It is said to have carried the first letter to the Pony Express on April 3, 1860. During the Civil War, the first assignment of Col. Ulysses S. Grant was protecting that railroad and Pony Express mail.
Grant was re-assigned in August 1861, and the Platte Bridge Railroad Tragedy occurred shortly thereafter, on Sept. 3. The bushwhackers caused the bridge over the Platte River a few miles east of St. Joe to collapse, and the train from Hannibal, which included a mail car, plunged into the river, killing about 20 people and injuring 100.
The St. Joseph newspaper
The St. Joseph News-Press, the main newspaper of northwest Missouri, traces its roots to the St. Joseph Gazette, which was first published in 1845 shortly after St. Joe was founded just two years earlier. The Gazette was the only newspaper to be sent west on the first ride of the Pony Express.
Earlier this month the News-Press became only the second newspaper in the country to endorse Donald Trump for President.
That is not too surprising, though, as most of its readers across rural northwest Missouri are strong Republicans and will most likely vote for Trump anyway—even though for a great many of them that would be against their own best self-interest.
Selected Resources
“The Story of the Pony Express” (1992) by Nancy Pope, accessible online here.
The Story of the Pony Express (1960), edited by Waddell F. Smith, grandson of William B. Waddell, one of the founders of the Pony Express


  1. When I was a boy growing up in rural northwest Missouri, my parents subscribed to the "St. Joseph Gazette," a morning paper, and the "St. Joseph News-Press," the evening paper. We received both of those papers in our mailbox the day following publication. Since 1988 there has been only one paper, published each morning with the latter name.

  2. Very interesting! I was wondering how you were going to tie it to current events. :-)

    1. Thanks!

      I wondered, too, at the beginning how to make some link to contemporary issues, but then when I saw that the "St. Joseph News-Press" was the only paper sent on the Pony Express and only the second paper to endorse Trump, the tie in seemed obvious.

  3. Interesting article re: Pony Express.
    When I was a child, we got the Amarillo paper, called the Amarillo Globe News now--don't remember what it was called then--every day. The colored funnies for the Sunday paper came to us on Saturday. We kids quarreled over who got to see the "Funny Paper" as we called it. The Saturday funnies were printed in colored ink, thus were sometimes called "The Colored Funnies." Had nothing whatever to do with ethnic issues. I no longer get a daily paper. The Amarillo Globe News has such an extreme right editorial policy that I canceled our subscription. Charles Kiker

    1. Yes, I remember calling the comic strips in the Sunday edition the "funny paper"--but it didn't come on Saturday. The two papers we got every weekday with the mail had many (uncolored) comic strips, and as a young boy that is probably about all of the newspapers I read.

  4. Most of what you said was familiar to me, although since I grew up in Kansas City, I did not have an impression of St Joe as a "big city". I knew the Pony Express was very short lived, but was not aware it was the Civil War that made it so important to remember. Growing up we received The Kansas City Times in the morning and The Kansas City Star at night, which were rival newspapers. They merged and continued their assigned delivery times until 1990 (had to google that) when they were consolidated to one morning paper called The Kansas City Star. Interesting that both KC and St Joe's surviving morning papers were formerly the evening papers. I still subscribe, but wonder how much longer it will be delivered in paper form since most of what I receive are advertisements with notes to go online for the news/commentary.

    1. Dennis, thanks for writing; it was good to hear from you again.

      Yes, compared to Kansas City, St. Joe wasn't much of a city, I guess. But it was different for me growing up on a farm and going to school and to church in a town that had a population of just over 1,000.

      June and I subscribed to a daily newspaper from our first year of marriage (in 1957!) to just a year or two ago. Now we get only the Sunday edition of the KCStar and read the other papers online only.

    2. I must amend my entry. William Rockhill Nelson, who owned the Star, bought the Times in 1901 bringing the two papers under succeeding ownership groups that continued until the Times stopped printing in 1990. However, Capital Cities, which bought the papers in 1977, tried to make the newsrooms appear to compete, which was enough to fool me.

  5. Amazing, the little quirks of history which change historical outcomes.

  6. "Hail, Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!" I know that comparing Trump to Caesar is unfair to Julius (not necessarily his successors), but something that struck me in my current reading of Phillip Freeman's "Julius Caesar" is how effectively Caesar sometimes used shame to rally his troops. Weaponized shame can be a powerful force.

    Which brings me to an article I just read about Trump's use of shame. The author argues that Trump is at bottom manipulating shame, not hate, to motivate his, shall we say, troops. It is both interesting and terrifying that modern candidates and Presidents can lead to metaphors of Caesar. Think of the Doonesbury cartoon lampooning Bush's Iraq War with a frazzled empty helmet missing most of its Roman feathers. Anyway, the link to the use of shame by Trump is here: https://www.thenation.com/article/donald-trump-shamer-in-chief/

  7. Thinking Friend John Tim Carr, who now lives in Oklahoma, sent the following comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy; for bringing back some good memories.

    "I delivered the "Des Moines Register" when we lived in Grant City."

    1. Thanks for writing, John Tim.

      I had forgotten about the "Des Moines Register," but it seems as thought we even got the Sunday edition out on the farm for a while.

      Were there people in town who took the daily edition? If so, I wonder why. Des Moines is a lot farther from Grant City than St. Joe.