When information moved at a gallop over the plains
The Kansas City Star
ST. JOSEPH - A fellow baby boomer wanting to relive a childhood memory got me to do something I should’ve done decades ago.
We visited the Pony Express National Museum in this Missouri River town. Years ago I toured the area near Sacramento, Calif., where the route ended but had neglected to go into the one-story brick building in St. Joseph, where saddlebags, fast horses and lean riders began the epic and often treacherous 2,000-mile gallop into America’s history books.
The goal was to carry the mail from the developed parts of the young country to its extremities. Information, as now, was critical.
It’s a game-changer, and speed always matters. It’s why dial-up access to the Internet led many homes to add an extra phone line to accommodate people wanting to talk, be online and receive faxes.
It seemed incredible to have access to so much information and even work from home. But not long afterward, dial-up and additional phone lines were replaced by in-home broadband connections. The speed and information access at home were astounding. It kept getting faster, and more people dropped the slower service to upgrade to the latest.
Then Google Fiber in 2011 picked Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City to create “fiberhoods,” connecting homes for a relatively low fee to the fastest, high-speed network. The other broadband services could go the way of dial-up and the Pony Express, becoming artifacts like three old modem-dependent computers in the basement of my home.
With all communications innovations of their time, the maxim that matters is necessity is the mother of invention. In the 1800s, the westward expansion, gold rush and wagon trains with settlers leaving Independence, Kansas City and St. Joseph for opportunity stretching from here to California created the need for the Pony Express.
William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell decided to go for a lucrative $1 million government contract to deliver the mail to the western territories. But they had to show that their overland route was a faster and more reliable way to deliver it.
The Pony Express began April 3, 1860, out of the building in St. Joseph. Relay stations were built every 10 to 15 miles, and 400 to 500 horses were purchased before the first ride.
Two men usually staffed a station, receiving about $40 a month. The riders, thin, wiry ambitious men, earned up to $100 a month. The riders changed at the home stations, which were 75 to 100 miles apart. They generally were at a ranch, hotel or town livery stable. The trail was divided into five divisions. Each was managed by a superintendent.
The museum explains how the riders braved terrible storms, prairie fires set by lightning and buffalo stampedes. They often zoomed past wagon trains setting up camp or lumbering along similar routes.
Getting through the mountains posed great challenges. The winter weather was cold and snowy.
The Pony Express riders also contended with Indians. But only one rider for the service was ever killed by Indians. The museum lists the names of riders who became better known figures in American history such as Buffalo Bill Cody.
We perhaps owe some of our old sayings to the Pony Express. For instance, the mattresses the riders used at the stations were filled with straw, hay, grass, horsehair and accompanying bugs. The bed frame was made of rope, which had to be tightened every night. The saw handed down from parents to kids, “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite,” is thought to have been a Pony Express expression.
All of that ended Oct. 24, 1861, after a new innovation, the transcontinental telegraph brought the labor-intensive Pony Express to an end 18 months after it started. The Pony Express founders got only about half of the $1 million contract and ended in bankruptcy.
Google Fiber’s 21st century move into the Kansas City market threatens existing broadband providers unless they are able to step up their service to compete. But I wonder whether 25 to 50 years from now, we’ll see museums dedicated to dial-up services, broadband or the first personal computers to travel the information superhighway or if it will all disappear as if they never existed.
To reach Lewis W. Diuguid call 816-234-4723 or send email to Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.