In the mid-19th century, California-bound mail had to either be taken overland by a 25-day stagecoach or spend months inside a ship during a long sea voyage. The Pony Express, meanwhile, had an average delivery time of just 10 days.
In the spring of 1860 three partners went into the mail delivery business with an ambitious plan. They situated over 180 stations following the Orgeon, California, and Mormon trails, tracing a path from the Missouri River right into Sacramento. The idea was simple. Lone horsemen would ride between stations at breakneck pace, switching mounts every 10-15 miles and then handing off their cargo to a new courier after 75-100 miles. This relay system allowed mail to criss-cross the frontier in record time. One rider completed a 380-mile run in less than two days.
It was most definitely a dangerous job, solitary riders being exposed to the elements with little communication, easy prey for highway bandits or war parties. Still, only a handful of riders—six, according to the National Park Service—died in the line of duty during the entire history of the Pony Express. Most of the riders were small, wiry men roughly the same size as a modern horseracing jockey. Their average age was around 20, but it wasn’t unusual for teenagers as young as 14 to be hired. They swore a pledge never to swear, drink or fight.