In 1857, Russell, Majors & Waddell secured a big government contract to supply the army in what threatened to become a war against rebellious Mormons in Utah. The firm paid top dollar to buy additional wagons and hire additional crews, but the operation became the target of Mormon guerrilla attacks, a devastating winter, and ultimately, federal default on contracts. Facing financial collapse, William H. Russell saw his company’s salvation in making a rapid transition from slow freighting to express mail service.
To make a dramatic demonstration of the speed and efficiency of his company, Russell invented what he called the Pony Express. He promised to deliver mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California—a distance just 44 miles shy of an even 2,000—in 10 days.
The unit would have no passengers and no coaches. Instead, the Express would achieve speed by a relay of ponies and riders stretched across the continent.
Russell had purchased 500 semiwild outlaw horses and had 80 riders continuously en route, 40 westbound, 40 east, who had answered his ads calling for “daring young men, preferably orphans.”
Financially, the Pony Express was a failure, charging a staggering $5 per half ounce (soon lowered to $2) of mail that actually cost the company an even more staggering $16 to deliver. Within 19 months, the Pony Express was out of business, rendered obsolete by the completion of transcontinental telegraph lines. But in 650,000 miles of travel, the company lost only one consignment—and managed to capture the nation’s imagination.