The Pony Express
Written by John Curtis - July 2005 Newsletter
In 1860, it was quite a challenge to deliver the mail to those of us who lived in California. There were steamships that delivered mail from New York to Panama, where it went across the isthmus on the newly completed train (1855) to be picked up by a second steamer and carried on to San Francisco. The post office’s goal was to deliver this mail in 25 days, but it usually took 30 - 45. The Butterfield stage coach route across the southern territories to San Francisco via Los Angeles took an average of three weeks (and that did not include the time it took the mail to reach Tipton, Missouri, the starting point for this stage trip). Then, with the oncoming of the Civil War, there were concerns about the security of the southern route. The central route across the continent was not deemed feasible for stagecoaches during winter, when snow piled up in the mountain passes through the Rockies and Sierra Nevada.
Most citizens of California were recent immigrants, and they were appalled at how long it took to communicate with family members who had remained in the East. Businessmen were particularly unhappy. So were newspaper publishers. California papers rarely had news from the rest of the country to print that was less than three weeks old.
This was the state of mail service in 1860 that the Pony Express was expected to improve. The new express mail system relied on a network of young, lightweight riders who galloped across the Plains, Rockies, Great Basin, and Sierra Nevada, changing horses at relay stations spaced 10 - 15 miles apart. Riders handed off the mail to a new rider every 75 - 100 miles. Riding day and night, they were able to deliver the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California - a distance of nearly 2,000 miles - in only 10 days.
At Sacramento, the mail bags were tossed on a river steamer which left for San Francisco every day at 2:00 p.m. However, when the rider missed the steamer he (or a fresh replacement) galloped on to Benicia and took the Ferry to Martinez. This happened on the second Pony Express trip when an encounter with Indians delayed the Pony Express rider somewhere east of Sacramento.
The ferry service between Benicia and Martinez, in 1860 had its beginnings in 1847, the year before the gold rush. The first ferry vessels were powered by oars or sails and ran without a regular schedule. Though the boats attempted to land near the place of the new monument at the foot of Ferry Street, actually they landed where the tides and wind took them. The next type of ferry was pulled across by ropes attached to horse-drawn capstans on each bank. This arrangement assured a consistent landing spot for the ferry boats. In 1851, a used ferry boat from the San Joaquin Valley was converted to steam power and placed in service on the Strait. This was the first successful motorized vessel, and the schedule improved to two regular crossings per hour.
In 1854, a brand new boat, the Carquinez, was placed in service. It was a large, properly constructed ferry boat built by an East Coast shipyard. it was disassembled for shipment around the Horn on a sailing ship and then reassembled in Martinez. It was double-ended so that horse drawn wagons could be driven on board on one side of the Strait and driven off on the other end of the other side without having to be turned around on the boat. Because the vessel was double-ended, the two steam-driven paddle wheels were mounted mid-ship. The Carquinez is depicted on the new monument.
Until 1854 vehicles and horses disembarked directly on the shoreline at the foot of Ferry Street, just the other side of the railroad tracks (laid 23 years later). However, runoff from the hydraulic diggings in the mine country caused the previously deep-water port at Martinez to silt in. To counter this, in 1854 the first wooden wharf was built at the foot of Ferry Street, extending it out to water deep enough for the ferry to reach. By 1860, when the first Pony Express rider crossed the Strait on the Ferry, the wharf had been lengthened several times as the silting of the shoreline continued. The wharf was probably about 150 feet long at this time.
One writer has speculated that the Pony Express riders leapt off the ferry and galloped up the wharf. I doubt that. The owners of the wharf, the Coffin brothers, would have taken a dim view of iron-shod horses galloping over the wharf and splintering the deck timbers. But once the rider reached solid ground, he probably spurred the horse into a gallop as he rode up Ferry Street, which was unpaved. It was only by riding at a gallop that riders were able to average up to 20 mph over the 2,000 mile Pony Express Route.
In April 1860 the Pony Express station was in Benicia. So the riders changed horses in Benicia and disembarked on the fresh pony and galloped through Martinez without stopping.
The first rider was Thomas Bedford. He raced through town on April 23, 1860 heading for Pacheco via the stage road that existed approximately where Pacheco Boulevard is now. He then rode to The Corners (Walnut Creek), Lafayette, and Oakland.
The second rider through Martinez is said to have tried a different route. He used the Briones Road, which took him up Alhambra Valley, over the Briones hills, and down Happy Valley Road into Lafeyette. However, this route, although shorter, was deemed too steep and too hard on the pony. Subsequent riders reverted to using the stage road through Pacheco.
After about a year of operation, the Pony Express office was moved from Benicia to Martinez. It was located on the Southeast corner of Ferry and Main streets, where there is an earlier monument. Roughly six months later, in November 1861, the Pony Express service came to an end. It was unable to compete with the newly completed transcontinental telegraph line.