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Great Plains passage: The Pony Express revisited
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The Great Plains of Eastern Colorado - an evening in late May traveling north on U.S. 385, the Great Plains Highway. The wheat fields are a rich amber under clear, blue skies and the temperature in a comfortable 60s range. I cross over I-70 that links Denver and Kansas City. As I prefer less-traveled roads, it's another 50 miles north to U.S. 36, then east to the northwest corner of Kansas.

With long days, at darkness it's already after 9 p.m. I stop in a small town to gas up and catch a bite to eat. Everything is closed except for a bowling alley - no bowlers but the place has some snacks available. Both motels are full up - unusual for small town Kansas on a weeknight. So I travel east a few miles and catch one in Oberlin.

Next morning dawns gray and drizzly, temperature in the cool 50s. I drive to Phillipsburg, a nice looking small town and a café, Shelly Ann's. It's crowded with locals, a good sign. I sense that my waitress must be Shelly Ann herself - it is. I ask her what that Nebraska Cornhuskers sign is doing in her Kansas establishment. And doesn't it irritate KU Jayhawk and KSU Wildcat fans?

She explains that she is originally from Nebraska and, no, it doesn't seem to bother the Kansans. Obviously not, as the food is good and the place is packed. With that, as a Wisconsin Badger I welcome her to the Big 10 - now 12, but who's counting?

As I resume my route through the Kansas wheat fields under gray skies and intermittent drizzle, I note that U.S. 36 is designated as "The Pony Express Highway."

The short lived Pony Express, in operation for only 19 months, looms large in lore and legend of the American West, but has historical significance of which few Americans are aware.

The Gold Rush of 1848-49 attracted thousands of prospectors, investors, and businessmen. California entered the Union as a free state in 1850, and by 1860, had an estimated population of 380,000. Nearly 2000 miles of frontier territory separated Missouri from California.

While there were obvious advantages to getting mail between the East and California more rapidly than the 20 days by Wells-Fargo Overland Stage Company, there was a more significant political imperative. As tension between the north and south, and prospects of civil war, increased, it was imperative that the Union strengthen its ties to distant California across the vast American frontier.

A company owned by William Russell, William Waddell, and Alexander Majors held contracts to deliver army supplies to the western frontier. Russell had an idea for obtaining contracts with the U.S. government for fast mail delivery. During winter of 1860, the three men assembled more than 400 horses especially selected for toughness and endurance, and more than 120 riders selected for horsemanship, ability to endure hardship, and weight, or lack of it- around 110 pounds.

Majors, being of religious bent, required his riders to take an oath never to use profanity, under penalty of discharge without pay. Given the frontier conditions and the nature of men attracted to such hazardous employment, one questions the extent to which such exacting rules were enforced - or even enforceable for that matter. No instances of men discharged for violating the oath are found in the available literature.

The system consisted of five divisions - sources vary, but about 190 stations including home stations and swing stations. Swing stations were from 5 to 20 miles apart, depending on terrain, the max that a horse could gallop before tiring. At swing stations, the rider would switch mounts as the mail pouch was transferred to a fresh horse. At home stations, riders could rest between runs. A rider would cover between 75 and 100 per shift. The route between St. Joseph, Mo. and Sacramento, Calif. was covered in about 10 days.

The route left St. Joe, crossed the Missouri River into northeast Kansas along current U.S. 36 to Marysville, then north to Nebraska and the Platte River. It followed the Oregon Trail along the Platte, brushed the northeast corner of Colorado, then across Wyoming and to Fort Bridger, Utah. It thean branched southwest along the California Trail, across Utah's Great Basin and approximating current U.S. 50 across Nevada, across the Sierra-Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe, then down the west side of the Sierras to the Sacramento Valley and city of Sacramento. From Sacramento, the mail went by boat downriver to San Francisco.

The first delivery was initiated April 3, 1860, and reached Sacramento on April 13. The Pony Express operated until October 1861 when the completion of the Pacific Telegraph Line ended the need for its existence. During the entire operation, only one rider was killed by hostile Indians, and only one mail pouch was lost.

The premier accomplishment of the short-lived Pony Express was that it helped hold California - and its gold -to the Union, a fact practically lost in the teaching of American history.

Yet the enterprise was a financial failure. Russell died broke in 1872; Waddell never went back in business. Majors returned to the freighting business and became involved in construction of the Union Pacific Railroad - no record of requiring employees to use pure language.

I reach Marysville, where the trail of the Pony Express turns north to Nebraska. Marysville bills itself as the home of the Black Squirrel. They arrived in Marysville in 1912 with a carnival sideshow. Some mischievous kids released them and they, the squirrels that is, have flourished ever since.

I would soon be back in the Cheese state once again. These trips can be interesting, especially when reminding us of our interesting history.

Cheese Days will be here before we know it - after that, maybe another junket on roads less traveled.

- John Waelti's column appears in the Times every Friday. He can be reached at