Just a year before the Civil War, on April 3, 1860, Pony Express riders began the first of their 1,950-mile gallops from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., and on into American mythology. They promised to make the trip in less than 10 days and often did it in eight. Riders carrying Lincoln's First Inaugural Address sped through in seven days and 17 hours.
These tough young horsemen dashed alone across some of the most dangerous, desolate and isolated terrain in America - the Great Plains, the High Sierras and the Nevada desert. They plunged into roaring blizzards, torrential rains and waterless wastelands. They carried the mail on a route fraught with the threat of hostile Indians and murderous gunmen. They set a kind of American standard for cussed grittiness.
The Pony Express seems eternal now, but it lasted just 18 months, killed instantly by the completion of transcontinental telegraph lines. But in the same instant the Pony Express became one of the great legends of the West, cast into myth by a relay of storytellers that included dime novelists Mark Twain and, perhaps most of all, Buffalo Bill.
In the first new book on the subject in a half-century, Orphans Preferred: the Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, Christopher Corbett looks at the old myths with a clarified eye. He's a seasoned reporter and editor who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
He wrote the book in the 102-year-old frame house in Roland Park, where he lives with his wife, Rebecca, an editor at The Sun, and their daughter, Molly. He sits in a white wicker chair on the porch and talks about "the Pony," as they say along the old route, while a late summer rain turns the afternoon the color of heirloom silver.
"It's not really a history of the Pony Express as much as it is a kind of meditation on how something became an American tall tale," says Corbett, 51, who will discuss his book tonight at the Enoch Pratt Central Library. "It is America's fascination with the kinds of stories we love to tell about ourselves.
"I always tell people the story of the Pony Express is a little bit like the story of Paul Revere's ride. It's sort of rooted in fact, but it's layered with a century and a half of embellishments and exaggerations and after a while no one was really sure exactly what was true. Like Paul Revere's ride."
But he doesn't dismiss the true grit of Pony Express riders.
"In the 20th century," he says, "the old guys who rode for the Pony who were interviewed, interestingly, they never talked about Indians, rustlers and desperados. They always talked about how brutal the conditions were working for the company. How brutal it was to ride a horse across 2,000 miles of what was essentially wilderness. This was a hard thing to do. They always remembered that."
"The other thing they always talked about was the weather," he says. "In Nebraska or Wyoming, in January, at night, it could be 40 below zero. And I don't mean that sort of `Instant Weather 40 below zero with the wind chill.'
"I mean 40 ... below ... zero!"
He emphasizes every syllable.
"Some of these guys ... when the wind was blowing so bad, it was so dark and so cold, they got off and led the horse. Because the horse couldn't figure out where they were. And the worst thing that could happen to you was to get off the trail. You might never get on the trail again.
"This isn't the Jersey Turnpike. You can get seriously lost in western Nebraska."
He's often traced the trail himself in gathering information for the book. He's searched through the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Huntington in Los Angeles and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
"I've been to every historical archive from St. Joe to Sacramento and back," he says. "As a result of this I have this huge army of people ... that I know, in places like Eli, Neb., and Eureka, Nev. ... And a lot of these guys know a lot about the West and about horses. These are not drugstore cowboys. These are the real article."
`I like Buffalo Bill'
Corbett's book bristles with accounts of guys like Pony Bob Haslam, Bronco Charlie Williams, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Jack Slade, of whom Mark Twain said: "From Fort Kearney, west, he was feared a great deal more than the Almighty."
"A lot of this is kind of like oral tradition," Corbett says. "And [for] the people who were involved in it ... veracity was not the specialty of the house. This was the golden age of prevarication."
He thinks Buffalo Bill's claim to having been a rider is dubious, but like so much of this story, "unresolvable." But Bill Cody did as much as anyone in creating the romantic image of the Pony Express. He included a Pony Express tableau in every performance of his Wild West Show from its premiere in 1883 to the finale in 1916, even when he dropped the re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand for The Charge up San Juan Hill.