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Pony Express gallops through Utah

Published June 13, 2010 8:37 pm

History » Official says 'It would've been the e-mail of the 1860s.'
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The staked-out horses, mail saddlebags and camp cooking made Sunday morning at the Willow Springs Ranch a lot like old times.

Very old times.

Dozens of Utahns, Nevadans, Wyomingites and other Western history buffs congregated with RVs and tents around a clapboard shack that 150 years ago served as a horse and rider station for the short-lived Pony Express mail service. Trail enthusiasts make the ride between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif., each summer in 10 days -- by sun and moon -- with little fanfare. But this year they're doubling the time so they can stop to celebrate the anniversary.

What killed the labor- and horsepower-intensive enterprise after just a year and a half is still poking through the door in the shack. A few feet of telegraph wire, the same that made east-west communication lighting-quick beginning in 1861, coils from the air through a peephole and hangs over a dusty desk in what's now part storage shed and part family museum. A saddle rots next to an unused bed.

"My dad always said, 'If these walls could talk, the stories they could tell," rancher Beth Bagley Anderson said.

Her rancher father, David Bagley, loved his West Desert outpost's place in history so much that he was the only one to ride in both the 75- and 100-year Pony Express commemorations. The table inside the ranch's rider station holds a framed, blurry black-and-white photo of the 13-year-old rider at the 1935 event, and a clearer shot from 1960 showing him mounted and waiting for the pouch as another rider's horse kicked up dust behind him.

The last time her dad rode, several years ago and not long before his death, Anderson said, the family had to prop him up on his horse so he could ride a few meters of his fence line. Now she rides a piece of the trail each year, and was honored to host the campers this time.

"It's exciting," she said. "I love the history."

More than 600 riders will participate in the ride, which this year moves west to east. Each wears the blue jeans, red shirt and yellow bandana of the historic rider. Most will ride about two miles before trading off with other enthusiasts, said Les Bennington, the National Pony Express Association president, who lives in Glenrock, Wyo. Some will ride faster than 20 mph, but most trot along at half that speed or less.

In 1860 and 1861, Bennington said, the original riders would gallop 10 or 12 miles at a time on mustangs before reaching a new station and switching to a fresh mustang. About every 60 miles they would come to another station, where they passed off the mail to a new rider and waited for incoming mail so they could remount and head back the other direction.

It was a bold venture that cost some lives in American Indian skirmishes and shaved weeks off transcontinental communications by stagecoach or ship. But it was an untimely investment for its founders because the telegraph, and soon the railroad, eclipsed it.

Nonetheless, Bennington makes the ride each year because he considers the brave riders a link to America's burgeoning strength. His association's volunteers move $5 commemorative letters -- same as the original price, but not nearly so bank-breaking at today's value -- for people who send them to the organization by May. The U.S. Postal Service takes over once the trail-ride ends, and gets them to any address.

"People just need to realize that history is what got us to where we are today," Bennington said. "It would've been the e-mail of the 1860s."

Anderson's nephew, Jeremy Hanks, of Lehi, used the same analogy after joining a dozen other family members in helping move the letter pouches past the bright green brush, beige sand and low-slung black mountains around Callao.

"You send an e-mail and it'll get around the world in a half-second," said the software company owner who works remotely with engineers in India. "So getting back on a horse with the mail is kind of fun."

The riders passed several roofless stone ruins of the express stations on their way across the flats and rolling passes through Juab and Tooele counties during the weekend. Those and some stone monuments built by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps mark the path along the dirt road between Callao and Simpson Springs, where they regrouped Sunday evening for a barbecue.

Utahns who participate yearly take turns riding the state's different segments. Sandy rider Beverley Heffernan said she was happy to ride her grulla quarter horse "Bo" past the sagebrush at the base of the Dugway Range this year. Though trailed by a caravan of dually pickups, horse trailers and sightseers, in front of her through Sunday's chilly mist was only open range.

"You can visualize what a rider was doing and seeing [in 1860]," she said. "Somehow, galloping up State Street is less appealing. Still, that's what we do: Keep the history alive for people."

Pony Express gallops through Utah

Pony Express Trail

Active 1860-1861

1,966 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif.

190 stations at peak

420 horses and 80 riders at peak

Horses averaged 7 mph