by Lee Foster
The Pony Express Trail National Back Country Byway, southwest of Salt Lake, causes a traveler to ponder what life was like for those legendary Pony Express Riders, icons of the American experience.
Along the route one learns that the Riders were physically small men, 120 pounds or lighter, because that body weight and 20 pounds of mail were all the horses could carry.
These wiry, tiny men rode quickly, averaging seven miles per hour day and night over rough terrain, which is still rugged today on the authentic back country road that is the celebrated trail.
There were 80 Riders at the peak of operations, using 420 horses at 190 stations. The men wore a uniform consisting of a bright red shirt and blue pants, and, at first, carried a bugle. The bugle was to announce their arrival at a station. However, management soon discovered that the sound of hooves was bugle enough, so the bugle, precious weight, was dropped. Management was ever responsive to costs when an ounce of mail yielded $5.
The journey across this vast, untamed landscape was both physical and metaphysical. Management issued a Bible for all Riders. Said Bible was a constant companion when faced with Indian attacks, bandits, vicious blizzards, and killing heat.
The pledge taken by every Rider harkens back to an earlier era, when the confidences of the country were entirely Christian. All Riders took the following Oath of Employment, which suggests the corporate culture of the era:
“I ___ do hereby swear, before the great and living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, & Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language. I will drink no intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect, I will conduct myself honestly, faithful to my duties, and so direct my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God.”
After taking that pledge, and after riding 60- to 120-mile relays, a Rider received a compensation per month of $120-125 uninflated dollars. It was an era before medical insurance, retirement benefits, or collective bargaining securities.
Expect the Byway road to be a passable gravel road, as it should be, negotiable except in heavy rains or winter snow. Disabuse yourself of the expectation that the Pony Express Byway is an Interstate.
BEGINNING THE DRIVE
The Pony Express drive begins at Lehi on State Highway 73, south of Salt Lake, and proceeds 133 miles west to Ibapah. You pass the first pony express station at Fairfield/Camp Floyd, adjacent to what is now Stage Coach Inn State Park.
Bureau of Land Management has organized the Back Country Byway program throughout the West, celebrating the most delicious landscapes in the 230 million acres it manages. BLM wisely decided to save the Pony Express Byway for the honorary 50th designation due to the beauty of the landscape and the wide public interest in the historical subject. The Byways program is part of BLM’s increasing emphasis on non-consumptive recreational use of its lands.
If you want to drive a scenic byway, direct the horsepower under your hood to follow those Pony Express mustangs of yesteryear.
The Pony Express was a quintessentially American effort at an entrepreneurial delivery service. It was the Fed Exp of its day. Messrs. Russell, Majors, & Waddell, the proprietors, promised to deliver a piece of mail in 10 days time from Missouri to California, for a price. Many consumers of that period were impatient with the alternative, sending mail on a six-to-eight-week trip down to the Gulf of Mexico by ship, then across Panama by mule, then by ship up to San Francisco. The standing joke of the era was that news events in the East were long forgotten by the time they became known out West.
With American entrepreneurial efforts, there is always the risk of failure, especially at a time before government subsidies could be arranged. Few citizens realize that the Pony Express, so enshrined in our heroic imagination, did also heroically fail, bankrupted by the competition after only 19 months of operations, closing in October 1861. The competition was not another provider with faster horses. No, the competition was a new technology, also a particularly American matter to contemplate. Less than a year after the hooves of the first pony echoed over the lonely stretches of the West, the new technology of telegraph poles punctuated the landscape.
The telegraph promised to transmit the news in dits and dahs at a speed that must have seemed digital for its day. The news that had taken eight weeks by ship, then only ten days by Pony Express, could now be conveyed in seconds by telegraph across the far-flung landscape, coast to coast. A man on a horse, riding day and night, could make heroic efforts, transmitting the Abraham Lincoln Inaugural Message to California in only 7-1/2 days, not 10 days. And yes, there were hotshot Riders, like William C. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who once rode 322 miles in 21 hours and 40 minutes, leaving behind 21 exhausted horses. But finally, there was the humbling reality that no horse rider could equal the telegraph, which could convey news in what seemed like an instant. And soon, if you needed the hard copy, there was the Iron Horse, whose track was already envisioned on the landscape by dreamers such as Theodore Judah. For those bulky packages, not just the contracts and the love letters and the life-defining missives, the railroad would deliver the goods by 1869.
The record shows that the Pony Express never turned a profit, though its founders could assert that it served monumental civic purposes, such as assisting to keep California in the Union during the Civil War.
The next station west is Faust Station, now only a ghost station, but a traveler can’t help but speculate. Was this named for some Faustian urge in the whole operation? Was this some literary Rider’s salute to the enterprise, as one might find in the California Gold Rush, where there were so many literary miners, the second sons of well-bred families, with the finest education that the era provided? No, this is not a stop named for Goethe’s Faust. This is “Doc” Faust’s two-story structure, the enterprise of a German migrant surviving on the edge of the Frontier.
Such lore can be learned at the official Pony Express Trail National Back Country Byway Kiosk, 1.8 miles west of Faust Junction.
What most intrigues a traveler at Faust Station is not the Riders, but their horses. What were these horses like? Originally, they were 600 mustangs, purchased along the route by Russell, Majors, & Waddell. It must have been like a massive Boeing Airline purchase of its era. Sell 600 mustangs to the Pony Express, invoicing the proprietors. What astounds today is that, west of Faust Station, those same horses are running wild in the imagination and across the physical landscape. The mustangs were originally a spirited and wild blood line, and today, you may spot their blood-line descendants in the Onaqui Mountain Wild Horse Management Area, adjacent to the official Pone Express Byway on the north side of the road. There’s something inspiring about wild horses, especially when they are, in part, the certified blood-line descendants of Pony Express ponies, as BLM expert Glenn Foreman asserts.
Since 1971 these wild horses have been protected by The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, declaring that these beasts be maintained for posterity as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Ten states boast wild horse populations. Utah has 2,600 wild horses in some 22 herds. The last winter aerial survey, in 1991, counted 169 horses in the Onaqui herd. Bring your binoculars and scan the landscape at Onaqui. You may spot wildness in yourself destined ever to roam free. Some citizens have both the will and the resources to adopt wild horses as the herd is periodically rounded up by BLM and culled to protect itself from the self-destruction otherwise inevitable with over-population and over-grazing.??
SIMPSON SPRINGS AND BEYOND
Proceeding west, the next station stop is Simpson Springs, the main fully restored station along the trail. The operative word here is springs, a dependable water source, the great prize in any desert crossing. Simpson Springs is typical of the stops on the 1900-mile route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Here BLM celebrates the restored, historic building, a stone skeleton that testifies to the lonely and isolated existence of the two agents, one station keeper, and one assistant who manned each station. Monotony was broken by the arrival and immediate departure of two riders each day. An adjacent BLM campground serves as a respite in a terrain otherwise devoid of traveler services.
Beyond Simpson, the most panoramic view of this range landscape occurs at elevated Dugway Pass, whose crest is a good spot for a picnic lunch.
More observations on the landscape can be made as you proceed west, toward Boyd Station. Much of the land is rangeland, used for cattle and sheep. If fortunate, you may run into an authentic cattle roundup as horseman move the herds to new grazing grounds. Shepherds also guide large flocks of sheep across the landscape. Juniper trees, sagebrush, rabbit brush, and cheat grass dominate as groundcover. Golden eagles are spotted frequently in the first part of the drive.
To enjoy the wildlife resource of the area, be sure to visit Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, at Boyd Station, which appears as wild today as it must have been in 1860. Take a self-drive tour around Fish Springs, one of the most remote Wildlife Refuges in the lower 48. Large populations of shorebirds can be seen here in April. Pintail and teal are the main waterfowl that crowd the refuge in October. Over 220 species of birds have been noted here, suggesting the importance of the site as a breeding and migratory rest habitat. Funding waterbird habitats in the desert is, paradoxically, one of the wiser mirages that taxpayers support in this region.
Beyond Fish Creek is the other intact Pony Express station of major importance. The station is on the ranch of David and Reubo Bagley, known as the Willow Springs Station, in Callao. The small community of Callao may have the largest number of old log cabin buildings in the West. Hopefully, David Bagley will be home at the time of your visit. He delights in showing his museum of artifacts from the early era, including several of the original telegraph poles that his great-grandfather hauled here 1860-1861. In his backyard you’ll see what he claims is the second-largest Fremont poplar tree in the U.S. The historic pony express building is an adobe structure faced with board siding. Mark Twain and Horace Greeley slept here, among other notables. Besides being a Pony Express station, the site was also a stage stop.
Riding for the Pony Express or the later stage operation, the Overland Express, was always a chancy and dangerous business. The original advertisement soliciting Riders said that orphans would be given preferential hiring, so as to minimize the sorrow of loved ones left behind. At Canyon Station, one learns that, in 1863, Indians killed the Overland Express Agent, plus four soldiers, and burned the station.
When returning to Salt Lake, a traveler can ponder an aspect of the Pony Express: speed. Speed was of the essence. Getting the mail to California in the least time was the goal. Mankind, especially the subspecies USA Mankind, has a desire for speed. Sending a rocket to the moon is a footnote to the Pony Express. So, on this journey, pause for a moment, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, to see a modern-day quest for speed. At Bonneville, the public can actually interact with the questors, as they attempt to set speed records with all classes of vehicles. Racing occurs on weekends from July-October, with the September “World of Speed” day a propitious time.
You drive out on the white salt flats, notable as a level and hard roadway, to see everything from motorcycles to jet-engined vehicles trying to set land-speed records. The current record is 418 miles per hour, even faster than the Pony Express. This is a journey to nowhere, however, with no mail to deliver. What is the purpose of the quest? If one lifted wheels off the ground, with these jet engines, the speeds could be increased manyfold. But there is something about having wheels or hooves on the ground, and being the fastest land-bound vehicle on the earth, or just the fastest in your class of vehicle. Bonneville, today, is partly an echo of a past era, the Pony Express time, and possibly also of the Route 66 phase in our national sensibility, when we got our kicks hooved and tired to the earth. The attempt for land-speed records at Bonneville are an aesthetic exercise in the jet age, like mastering the harpsichord after the piano has been invented.
A side trip further north to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, at Pomontory, can complete a speed-and-transportation theme exploration in this region of Utah. Here, in 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad, racing east, met the Union Pacific Railroad, moving west, eventually tying Sacramento and Omaha together with a 1,776-mile stretch of rails, uniting the country as never before. At Golden Spike, from May through October, they steam onto the track the handsome Central Pacific engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific engine Rogers, authentically re-created down to the red paint and brass trim. The wood-fired Jupiter and coal-powered Rogers chuff their steam engines up and down the track at 3:30 each day before being put into the barn for the night. From October-May they can be viewed in the barn. Hearing the rail whistle blow, in this remote landscape, thrusts the unrequited longings of a visitor back to the 19th century.
The Back Country Byways program of the BLM, stewards of the nation’s largest and least-explored land holdings, combines America’s love affair with the motor vehicle and our yearning for the out-of-doors. It is difficult to imagine a drive that sparks the imagination more than the new Pony Express Byway southwest of Salt Lake. Along this trail today, if you close your eyes and listen hard for the hoofbeats of the Pony Express, you may get carried away and mistake your own elevated heartbeat for the sound of the approaching Rider of 1860, dressed in his red shirt and blue pants.
Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem, “I took the road less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” A ride on the new Pony Express National Back Country Byway can alert you, nostalgically, to a landscape heroically traversed 1860-1861 by a few enterprising Pony Express Riders.
THE PONY EXPRESS BYWAY: IF YOU DECIDE TO SADDLE UP
Write for a brochure on The Pony Express Byway to the Bureau of Land Management, Salt Lake District Office, 2370 S. 2300 West, Salt Lake City, UT 84119; 801/977-4300.
Spring and autumn are the best seasons to do the drive. In summer, expect heat and dust. In winter there can be snow in the high passes, such as Dugway. In heavy rains, the gravel road can be difficult.
Byways can be driven in 12 states in the West and Midwest. A good source of information on the BLM Byways is Stewart Green’s BACK COUNTRY BYWAYS (Falcon Press). The BLM office in each western state can also provide information on its Byways.
Lodging for the trip can be arranged at Salt Lake on the east end or Wendover, Nevada, on the west end.
For overall travel information on Utah, contact the Utah Travel Council, Council Hall/Capitol Hill, Salt Lake City, UT 84114; 801/538-1030.