Ingenuity in Connection From the Pony Express

Posted: Jul 25, 2017 12:01 AM
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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- For a very brief moment in time, swift communication in this country began and ended here at a set of modest stables located along the lush winding shores of the Missouri River.

The stables, originally built for a local stagecoach company, were bought by a couple of entrepreneurs -- William Russell, William Waddell and Alexander Majors -- to be used for their new company, Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, which eventually became known as the Pony Express.

It is hard to imagine that just over 150 years ago, mail bound for California took at least 30 days by stagecoach. If it went inside a ship, well, that could take months.

The Pony Express bragged of an average delivery time of only 10 days.

It was an intricate and well-thought out plan dictated by the owners. They put together a series of 200 stations beginning here in the stables on Penn Street and traveling through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.

The horsemen traveled alone, and they had to be slight in frame because of the limits a heavier man would place on the horse and travel. Every 100 miles, they would hand off mail bound west relay-style.

It was 1860, and they had opened up expedient communications between the Midwest and the West Coast. It was dangerous. It was expensive. It was efficient. And it was also a bit foolhardy.

News reports of the day show the company's personal best was delivering a copy of President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address in seven days and 17 hours. Months earlier, one Pony Express rider traveled 380 miles in less than 40 hours because one of the relay riders in Nevada was frozen in fear of the Paiute Indians and could not complete the delivery.

Communication and figuring out how we swiftly deliver it has always been the hallmark of American entrepreneurs. In a broad country filled with diverse ideas and points of view, we have always searched for the best ways to connect with one another, from the colonial town crier to the broad expanse of the American newspaper to radio to television to social media.

In 1860, men risked their lives to travel over terrains filled with extreme weather and constant threats of Indian and bandit attacks -- those who manned the stations, many of them remote, faced the same daily peril.

Today, if we have a thought in our head, we can use social media to express it, and potentially millions of people can read it, exploit it, misunderstand it or enjoy it, depending on how that message is constructed.

Twitter is a perfect example of that: It is a powerful, sometimes dangerous, sometimes meaningful way to communicate to people you may never meet personally but could influence.

Not everyone uses it responsibly. Sometimes people are abusive. Sometimes people are sheep following political celebrities blindly. And sometimes people hoodwinked. But all of those characteristics are as old as the dawn of time. As circus master P.T. Barnum once famously quipped, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Travel across the country and you will find several markers noting where the mostly primitive stations once sat. In fact, the Hollenberg Station alongside the Little Blue River in Hanover, Kansas, is perfectly preserved.

The station in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is gone, but a beautiful bronze plaque marks the spot where the riders swiftly passed through on their way west.

Social media, particularly Twitter, has changed the way we communicate with each other: We have gone from person to person; to person to business; to politician to world leader; and back to person. It is rich at its best, destructive at its worst.

It has diminished nuance in our communication, leaving some statements without clarity or misunderstood. It can lead people. It can break people. But it can also connect people to moments in history that unfold in front of our lives in real time, a notion that Russell, Waddell and Majors could only have dreamed of in 1860.

The Pony Express only operated for 19 months. In that time, over 30,000 pieces of mail were delivered; six lives were lost; and hundreds of thousands of miles were covered by the relay riders.

It never made bank. In fact, it cost its owners a couple hundred thousand dollars. But it did make its mark on history. The next time you hurriedly send off a text or a tweet or use Snapchat, consider the ingenuity and courage of the men who sought to connect us swiftly over 100 years ago, and all that invention in between.

Makes you wonder what could possibly be next.