Yellow Arrows, The Pony Express and the US Mail

advertisement for pony express rider smallerThe Pony Express, Yellow Arrows and the U.S. Mail

@2014 Steve Hathcock

With the threat of civil war looming, citizens of the Western states needed assurances of fast and reliable communication with the eastern part of the country. The idea of a trans-continental telegraph line was still in its infancy and something needed to be done immediately. Recognizing an opportunity, William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors, co-owners of a freight line already delivering mail to Colorado and Utah revived a plan that had first been proposed years earlier to use fast horses, riders and relay stations to deliver mail to California. By January, 1860 the partners had formed a new company called the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company which quickly became known as the Pony Express.

Because it was connected to the east by railroad and telegraph St. Joseph, Missouri was chosen as the company’s eastern terminal. A route that traveled from Missouri, through Kansas, as well as the territories that would become the states of Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California was established with Sacramento becoming the western terminal.  At the peak of its operation, the company’s horse herd numbered over 400 head.  Relay stations, where riders changed horses, were established ten to fifteen miles apart while home stations, where riders could change and rest were located around 100 miles apart

 

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The service opened officially on April 3, 1860, when riders left simultaneously from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. The first westbound trip was made in 9 days and 23 hours and the eastbound journey in 11 days and 12 hours. The pony riders covered 250 miles in a 24-hour day.

Though the trail was full of danger only one mail delivery was ever lost during the company’s short life. On October 24, 1861, the completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for the Pony Express. Though it was never a financial success, the story of the Pony Express endures to this day.

But what about the yellow arrows you ask. Fast forward 60 years.

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August 20, 1920, the United States Post Office opens its first coast-to-coast airmail delivery route. There were no air charts of the country at the time, which meant a pilot had to rely on being able to see landmarks along the way to enable them to stay on route. Flying in bad weather was difficult, and night flying was just about impossible. Drawing upon the Pony Expresses use of way stations the Postal Service solved the problem. The concept was simple, every 10 miles a huge, yellow concrete arrow pointed the way. A million-candlepower rotating beacon perched atop a 51 foot tower light the arrow at night and during inclement weather.

By 1929 the row of lighted arrows spanned the continent. Mail that had taken weeks to be delivered from coast to coast now could be in the hands of its recipient in as little as 30 hours!

By the beginning of 1940 the yellow arrows were replaced with onboard communications and navigation and the beacons were decommissioned. The towers were salvaged for their steel which went to the war effort. The giant arrows themselves remained. Over the years the yellow paint faded and the concrete crumbled but they are still out there. I wonder what future archeologists will make of them?

First Pony Express Riders

http://ponyexpress.org/

Pony Express riders

 

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