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Old Pony Express trail stands as a silent reminder of the past.
Photo: Kippy S. Lanker (Fort Churchill Historic State Park)
“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred,” announced the newspaper advertisement for Pony Express riders. While in operation only 19 months, this daring enterprise captured America’s fascination for its swift service and dangers faced.
The pounding hoofs and gallant riders of the 1860s are long gone, but a handful of station ruins remain across northern Nevada, where you can wander through truly awe-inspiring patches of history.
Fort Churchill, once the most important military installation in Nevada, was a prominent Pony Express stop, provided protection for early settlers, and was a supply depot during the Civil War. Today at Fort Churchill Historic State Park, guests can explore the ruins and see historical artifacts and a small-scale reconstruction of the outpost at the visitor center. Tall cottonwoods shade camping and picnic areas lining the Carson River, which has access points for canoes. It is located eight miles south of Silver Springs on Alt. U.S. 95, 40 miles east of Carson City.
Buckland Station was once a Pony Express stop and an important way station for pioneer travelers. After repeated clashes between Native Americans and emigrants, the service moved to Fort Churchill. When Fort Churchill ceased operation in 1869, the Buckland Family salvaged materials from the buildings and erected the two-story ranch house that still stands. The Division of State Parks has installed interpretive displays and renovated the lower floor of the house. Tours are available by appointment. Buckland is located on Alt. U.S. 95 one-half mile south of the Fort Churchill entrance.
The Sand Springs Pony Express Station offered the only reliable water between Carson Lake and Westgate, but its quality was another matter. It was described by a rider as “warm, smelly, with a taste equal to rinsing a mail rider’s socks,” writes John M. Townley in The Pony Express Guidebook. Almost buried by drifting sand, the station was excavated in 1976 by a team of archaeologists from the University of Nevada, Reno. Now part of the Sand Springs Desert Study Area near Sand Mountain, the volcanic rock walls—the mortar between them falling apart—are ringed by a short nature trail with interpretive signs.
The Cold Springs Pony Express Station is one of the best-preserved sites in Nevada. It is accessed by a 1.5-mile trail that begins at a roadside interpretive kiosk located off U.S. 50, about 60 miles east of Fallon. Nearby you can view the fenced remnants of stage stations.
The Pony Express became obsolete with the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph line, and while never a financial success, the nostalgia surrounding it endures. The National Pony Express Association has kept the legend alive by holding an annual re-ride on the Pony Express National Historic Trail every June since 1978. This year, from June 18 to 28, more than 500 riders and horses carrying commemorative letters will participate in the non-stop event. About 155 riders will traverse the 403-mile route across Nevada, June 19-21, and the public is invited to cheer the riders on. The trail roughly follows a portion of U.S. 50.
Pony Bob: rider is revered as one of Nevada’s most daring horsemen
Known throughout the west as “Pony Bob,” Robert Haslam contributed to the fastest Pony Express trip, carrying President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address 120 miles in eight hours, 20 minutes.
Haslam also is credited with making the longest round trip on the famed trail, 380 miles. The trip began five weeks after the service started about the time the Pyramid Lake Indian War broke out in May 1860. He began his normal route at Friday’s Station (near Lake Tahoe, one mile east of Stateline) and rode to Buckland’s Station 75 miles to the east, where his relief rider was so frightened by the Indian threat that he refused to ride. The station keeper offered Bob a $50 bonus to take the mail all the way to Smith’s Creek Station, which he did—a total of 190 miles, stopping only to change horses.
After a nine-hour rest, he retraced his route with the westbound mail. In the brief interim, Indians had attacked the Cold Springs Station, killing the station keeper and stealing all the horses. Without delay, Haslam watered his horse and rode to the Sand Springs Station where he convinced the keeper it was too dangerous to remain. In fact, it was attacked the next day. He finally arrived back at Friday’s Station only three and a half hours behind schedule, making the 380-mile round trip, the longest on record, in less than 40 hours.
Fort Churchill Historic State Park,
Sand Springs Desert Study Area,
Cold Springs Pony Express Station
Carson City Field Office, BLM
National Pony Express Association
PONY EXPRESS FACTS
Route: St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California (1,966 miles)
In Service: April 1860 to Nov. 1861
Average Speed: 10 mph
Relay Station: every 10-15 miles
Home Station: every 75-100 miles
Total Trip Duration: 10 days or fewer