Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? No, It’s 1861 High Tech…

news on phone croppedI don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that today, when there’s a news event, large or small, or when someone speaks publicly, truthfully or otherwise, that event or that story is transmitted via the Internet and is on our phones and in our faces in seconds.

It just a fact of our fast-paced world.

This came to mind when I was watching a documentary and the narrator said, “On April 24, 1861, news reached San Francisco via Pony Express that the Civil War had started two weeks earlier.”

It stretches the imagination – it may even be beyond imagining – that news from the East Coast this momentous, this life-changing and eventually, world-altering – took two weeks to reach the West Coast.Pony_Express postmark

And the news wasn’t traveling all the way from the East Coast.  It was traveling from St. Joseph, MO to California – did you catch this? – via Pony Express.

That’s right.  News of the bombing of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War would have been telegraphed from the East Coast to cities in the East and Midwest, but only as far west as St. Joseph.  There was no transcontinental telegraph, so the quickest way to move news west was on horseback:  The Pony Express.

war starts_03 cropped
War begins – April 12, 1861.

Imagine just going about your life, then you hear or read a story that our country was at war – a war that started two weeks ago.

That’s how it happened in California.

And it only happened that quickly because a group of strong, young men on strong, fast horses was willing to make the treacherous, nearly 2,000-mile journey to deliver mail – and news – to the furthest reaches of the U.S.

For a brief 18 months, the Pony Express was the high-tech, fastest means of communication between the eastern and western United States.  The transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete in October 1861, but in its time the Pony Express was considered a marvel.  Advertisements promised “Letter 10 Days to San Francisco!” from New York – once (in a much smaller font) your letter arrived in St. Joseph.

In St. Joseph the mail and newspapers were loaded into a pouch, the pouch slung over the saddle, and the horse and rider would set off.  According to a Library of Congress article, “During a typical shift, a rider traveled 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at relief stations along the route.  Station keepers and stock tenders ensured that changes between horses and riders were synchronized so that no time was wasted”:

Pony_Express_Map_William_Henry_Jackson larger
The Pony Express:  From St. Joseph, MO (far right) to Sacramento, CA (far left), almost 2,000 miles on horseback in 10 days.

And who were these riders?

Frank Webner cropped
Frank Webner, one of the few identified Pony Express riders.

A Pony Express poster advertised for “young, skinny and wiry fellows…willing to risk death daily.  Orphans preferred.”  Most were in their late  teens and early 20s and earned around $100 per month, when a comparable wage for unskilled labor at the time was about $0.43-$1 per day.

Most of their names and faces are lost, but – incredibly – during that 18 months, Pony Express riders lost only one mail delivery.

Once that nameless but intrepid rider reached Sacramento on April 24, 1861, some of the precious contents of his pouch would have been dispersed locally, and the remainder sent via steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco.  News of the war appeared in the next day’s Sacramento Daily Union newspaper under the heading Startling Events:

Civil War Headline (2)

“The attack upon Fort Sumter, its destruction and surrender, are events which will produce a sensation throughout the country…the first scene in this terrible national tragedy…the overt act of treason committed by the revolutionists at Charleston has forced a condition of things which will compel every man to take sides either for or against the Federal Government…”

When the end of the war came four bloody, tragic years later, that news would have reached the West via telegraph in minutes, not weeks.

Now, this is by no means a history of the Pony Express – there are plenty of those online.

frowning_01Rather, it’s a reflection.

The next time we get frustrated because Facebook isn’t loading fast enough, let’s take a deep breath and remember that once upon a time, people were getting their news via Pony Express.

In weeks, not seconds.

Although, considering a lot of the news today…

You Say That (2)

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