P is for Pony Express – The Pony Express began overland mail service between St Joe, Missouri and San Francisco, California (their first letter postmarked April 3, 1860) almost one year to the day before the Civil War began. In an era when North and South were coming apart the Pony Express bound East and West together. The Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, actual title of the Pony Express, operated 150-190 stations over the near 2,000 mile route between Missouri and California. Riders covered that distance in 10 days or less (the fastest time being 7 days 17 hours) riding at a gallop and changing horses about every 12 miles. Ironically, the last hundred miles, from Sacramento to San Francisco, was traveled by steamboat. Ten day mail delivery started out at $5 per ounce and miners were known to have paid $150 for a 10 day old newspaper – kind of makes Fed Ex overnight look a real bargain.
No less a frontiersman than Buffalo Bill Cody himself rode for the company at age 15. Youthful riders were preferred (Charlie Miller was only eleven) as were orphans if period handbills are to be believed. No rider could exceed 125 pounds. They worked about 100 miles per ride, were sworn to high moral character, and, at $25 per week, received three times the going wage for working horsemen . Dangers were great. Aside from mountains, rivers, desert heat and winter blizzard, 16 employees of the company were killed in the Piute Indian War of 1860. Still through it all, the Pony Express lost only one pouch of mail (recovered two years later from the Piute). The riders set such a high mark for their exploits that Wells Fargo used the Pony Express logo into the 1990s and the USPS issued its first commemorative stamp ever in honor of Pony Express Riders.
It would seem the express company had all the makings of a grand and successful enterprise, all but one that is. For anyone like me who lived through the dotcom bubble or the more recent mortgage business collapse, the Pony Express story may sound familiar. There was plenty of hype, a lot of flash. They had a great marketing team but absolutely no business case to justify the investment. The company lasted a mere 18 months, collapsed when the first telegraph line to California began service, went bankrupt owing all the employees back wages and lost half a million dollars to boot.
I wonder if Fred Smith knew about all that when he submitted the paper detailing his plan for Fed Ex to his Yale professor. It could be – Smith says he won $27,000 playing blackjack in Vegas to keep his fledgling express business open in 1973.