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This Day in History: The end of the Pony Express

On this day in 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph is sent, bringing an end to the Pony Express.

The task seemed impossible at first! How could cable be stretched over 2,000 miles of country, including the Rocky Mountains and many areas where it was assumed that Indians would cut down lines or attack the workers? In fact, when Congress approved the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 and bids were solicited for construction of the line, only one company even dared to try. Western Union submitted the only bid and thus and got the job of building the telegraph line. (Two other bids were initially submitted, but retracted.)

The first poles went up on July 4, 1861. The first telegraph was sent less than four months later. How’s that for a show of American determination?

The telegraph got rid of the need for the Pony Express, which had previously been the fastest method of communications between the western and eastern coasts of the country.

The Pony Express had not been in existence long—only about 18 months—but it had performed impressive feats for its time. At its height, riders were moving continuously from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. Men rode constantly, in shifts. An average shift was 75 to 100 miles. Horses would be changed once every 10 to 15 miles, so that a rider always had a fresh horse able to gallop as fast as possible. The job was well-paid, because it was considered so dangerous. Riders faced difficult territory and the possibility of attacks. Sometimes, they even had to be escorted by military riders.

In short, the Pony Express crew was full of tough guys who rode hard! They delivered their messages in half the time that it would take a stagecoach to travel the same distance.

I wonder how those riders felt on the day when their difficult feats were no longer needed. They’d been replaced by construction of a line—also a difficult feat! Soon, more lines would be completed across oceans, making the reach of telegraphs more global. And, of course, none of those Americans could even begin to imagine what we have achieved in terms of communication today.

How American! Set your sights high and achieve task after task that was once thought to be impossible.