Pony Express monument to be dedicated
Eight miles may not seem like a great distance to a motorist or bicyclist, but to pooped-out horses who raced daily over Echo Summit carrying bags of mail, the difference meant extra fuel-up time at the trough and nips of whiskey for the riders.
The opening of a Kingsbury Grade trail over Daggett Pass in 1860 allowed a perfect segue for Pony Express riders looking to trim time off their deadlines as they rushed mail by horseback 24-7 from San Francisco to St. Joseph, Mo., in as little as 13 days.
On Saturday, historians clad in 1860s-era clothing will join Douglas County officials in dedicating a granite monument at the Pony Express station site in Stateline, where horses and riders on their way west to San Francisco or east to Missouri, fueled up in Stateline before taking a shortcut over Daggett Pass.
The route was first used by the Pony Express exactly 144 years ago on Saturday.
“The (trail) is significant to the history of the Pony Express because it saved them half a leg rather than going over Luther Pass,” explained Joe Nardone, master historian for the 700-member Pony Express Trail Association based in Laguna Hills, Calif.
The Pony Express began as a private venture on April 3, 1860 operating roughly 2,000 miles between San Francisco and St. Joseph going both east and west. In its 19-month existence, it employed 700 people, about 10 percent being actual riders.
The riders were paid $50 a month plus room and board to load up horses with mail and travel 75 miles in a day, switching horses every 15 miles at numerous stations between California and Missouri. At the end of one 12-hour day for a rider, another rider would meet him, exchange horses and the tired rider would bed down for the night with a hot meal and libations.
“I think of the Pony Express as the most finely crafted historic mail service known to man and ever developed,” Nardone said of the private enterprise that competed with the federal government’s much slower postal service. “What would take the government 30 days to deliver took the Pony Express 13 days to deliver, 15 when the weather was bad.”
One of three Pony Express station sites in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Stateline building at the northwest corner of Lake Parkway and Highway 50 still stands and is now owned by the Park family. It’s significant because it served as a bypass to Luther Pass, a longer and more rugged route.
Originally, the Pony Express route from Echo Summit went Southeast over Luther Pass, through Hope Valley onto Woodfords and then to Genoa.
On May 14, 1860 that all changed when David Kingsbury and John McDonald opened up a toll road that went up Kingsbury Grade down into Genoa and then on to the Comstock town of Virginia City.
Instead of going over Luther Pass, the Pony Express went over Daggett, saving 8.3 miles of horse time. A granite monument was dedicated last year near Lira’s Market in Meyers, marking the station site near Echo Summit.
In need of a horse and employee switch station, the Pony Express company contracted Martin K. “Friday” Burke and John Washington Small to use their building site for the Stateline station. The original log station building and the new larger, white framed building still stand at the Park Cattle Company ranch site.
Considered a landmark in enterprise for its time, the Pony Express lasted about 14 months of private ownership before it was taken over by the federal government during the Civil War.
Each half-ounce letter cost $5 to deliver, which in today’s value would be around $85, Nardone said.
“It was used by a lot of business people on the West Coast who wanted to know what was going on back east with the Civil War,” Nardone said. “I think of it as the e-mail verses snail mail system that we have today.”
The government held onto the Pony Express for about five months while it built telegraph lines across the country, thus making express transcontinental mail delivery by horseback obsolete.