ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — This sentence you are reading right now is being ferried to your computer or smart device by cables, wires and radio waves. That allows us all to communicate across continents and read up-to-date news from sites like Ashland Source.

But in 1860, there were no such wires or cables. Instead of electrical signals, information had to be transported by people, by train, by bird, or even smoke signals.

The fastest way for news to travel across the United States was via the Pony Express, a daring enterprise whose speedy riders managed to transport mail from Missouri to California in around 10 days, an unprecedented level of speed in the pre-telegraph U.S.

At one end of the Pony Express was St. Joseph, Missouri, now a town of 70,000 near the Kansas-Missouri border that this week plays host to the NCAA Division II women’s basketball tournament. Ashland University is one of those teams remaining and will play Glenville State on Wednesday night in the Final Four.

On April 3, 1860, the first Pony Express rider (whose identity is disputed, it could be Johnny Fry or Johnson William Richardson) saddled his horse with a special mail-carrying saddle called a mochila, dug his spurs into his steed and rode out from St. Joseph, headed west with letters bound for California. 

He likely rode 80-100 miles, switching out his horse every 10 miles at the Pony Express’s many station breaks.

After he rode his specified route, he passed the mail on to another rider, who would carry it for another 80-100 miles before passing it on, creating an unbroken chain of adventurous men and boys that stretched across the heartland.

On April 14, 1861, the first letters sent from St. Joseph arrived in Sacramento, California, completing the line’s first successful run.

The Express’ speed was due to its riders. They did not stop for nightfall, they did not stop for anything. 

The riders’ only companions were his horse and the sound of hooves hitting earth. As forest gave way to plains, to desert, to mountains, he could only rely on himself.

Even when tornadoes, floods, thirst, and hunger plagued the riders, they had only one thing to do, ride.

They would not have to endure the wrath of Mother Nature for long, however. On Oct. 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed. What used to take riders days to deliver would now take minutes.

Two days later on Oct. 26, the Pony Express went bankrupt. 

Despite only running for 18 months, the Express became a romantic icon of American toughness, grit, and determination through the works of William Frederick Cody, commonly known as Buffalo Bill.

Buffalo Bill claimed to have ridden for the Express when he was 15, and he brought his experience to the traveling show he would take around the world later in life, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

Part of the show’s program included a re-enactment of the Pony Express’ riders. Audiences from around the U.S., Great Britain and continental Europe became very familiar with the image of the solitary Pony Express rider, beset by the elements, his mind focused only on the road ahead. 

It’s this image that visitors can find plastered all over St. Joseph, Missouri. Almost every business I’ve stepped into so far has had some reference to the Express. Even the basketball court hosting the Elite Eight is emblazoned with the image of a rider on a horse. 

But where you’ll find the most references to the Express is the Pony Express Museum in downtown St. Joseph. What was once the line’s stable is now an impressive museum with plenty to read and experience. 

After going through the museum, I think I’ll have a new appreciation for my upcoming 11-hour drive back to Ashland. I won’t be carrying any mail, barring any out-of-the-blue mercenary contracts I sign with the USPS, which seems unlikely. 

What I will be carrying (and perhaps imagining myself as) is the Pony Express’ riders, rearing up on the horizon of a new world.

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