Re-enactment recalls the value of entrepreneurial Pony Express originators

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 - 8:04 pm

It lasted only 18 months, but in the eyes of many, it was an entrepreneurial phenomenon.

In the mid-1800s, mail moved like molasses between the Eastern and Western sides of the country. The railroads in the East only made it out to the Midwest, meaning that either stagecoaches slowly carried letters across the West, or a ship had to sail around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. Either way, it took about 20 days to move information across the country.

Like most entrepreneurs, the men who started the Pony Express in 1860 seized the opportunity to do it better and faster than the other guys. Unable to secure a mail-carrying contract with the government, they decided to pursue the business on their own dime – transporting mail on horseback to get it there in half the time.

The flame of this bright idea was snuffed with the invention of the telegraph, ending the service in November 1861, but its historic value is carried on in an annual re-enactment.

On Saturday, James Swigart, the president of the National Pony Express Association, rode into Old Sacramento on his Arabian quarter horse Fancy. He brought with him the "mochila" filled with 1,200 commemorative documents and personal letters sent on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Pony Express.

The Pony Express association was formed in 1976 to preserve the historic significance of the mail route. Today, there are about 1,000 members, Swigart said, who volunteer their time to remember and re-enact the journey.

"The intent of the founding fathers of the association was to not lose the trail; it was disappearing," said Swigart, who has been a member for 20 years. "So they set out to find the trail, to get attention, and educate people about it using maps, state records and old newspapers."

The 1,966-mile ride starts in St. Joseph, Mo., crosses eight states, and ends in Old Sacramento. It takes 10 24-hour days and was divided this year among more than 600 riders.

Participants ride their own horses for about three miles each, and relay the mail to the next rider at the designated handoff, which is as close as possible to the original handoff stations.

"The first year I carried the mochila, I got a lump in my throat," said Pat Fanelli of Wilton, a 10-year member of the association who rode this year with her granddaughter Jessica Sloat. "I felt like I was carrying the Olympic torch; I felt very moved by this."

Sloat, 19, of Fernley, Nev., joined the organization four years ago. She said, "It's something that we can do as a team, instead of being kid-and-grandma."

Swigart said that the founders of the organization felt the re-enactment was the best way to raise awareness and preserve the historic route, and now the National Parks Service has incorporated the trail into the National Trails System.

For more information about the Pony Express, visit the National Pony Express Association's website at

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