150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Telegraph
By Diane DeBlois
In the flurry of 150th anniversaries for the opening salvos in the Civil War, we should remember the first telegraph line across the country was completed in October 1861 -- the first message across the line to President Lincoln assuring him that California would be loyal to the Union.
As this telegraph line was being built eastward from San Francisco and westward from St. Joseph, Missouri, the communication gap between the wires was filled by one of the most romanticized of American institutions, the Pony Express. This messenger service lasted just 19 months, from April 1860 to October 1862 (the final letters reaching San Francisco on November 20). Organized as the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company, it did not improve overland mail service (which regularly went by Butterfield Overland Mail Company stagecoaches) but carried only the most critical news -- for a whopping fee. It didn't even make money for its organizers who were bankrupt by the end of 1861.
But the Pony Express rider, galloping from telegraph terminal to terminal, remains a memorable figure. Buffalo Bill Cody re-enacted his experiences as a rider for years in his Wild West shows. Pony Bob (Robert H. Haslam) was another swashbuckling self-promoter whose claim to fame remained his stint as rider for the Pony Express. Most agree that he was one of the riders on the very first run, and he given the relay that began in Carson City (continuing via Camp Floyd, Salt Lake City, Fort Bridger, Fort Laramie, to St. Joseph, in a total of 10 days.)
Two decades after his career with the Pony Express, Haslam issued this illustrated business card ("R.H. Haslam / Pony Bob / Chicago"), to honor his record ride in November 1860 from Fort Kearney to Fort Churchill in Nevada Territory, to delivery the news of Lincoln's electoral victory. In the chromolithograph, Pony Bob is shown wearing buckskins, moccasins, a broad-brimmed hat, and a red neckerchief (riders didn't wear uniforms, though usually the costume was a buckskin shirt with cloth trousers tucked into high boots). Haslam recalled that more formality in dress was adopted for the rider leaving St. Joseph: "We always rode out of town with silver mounted trappings decorating both man and horse and regular uniforms with plated horn, pistol, scabbard, and belt, etc., and gay flower-worked leggings and plated jingling spurs resembling, for all the world, a fantastic circus rider. This was all changed, however, as soon as we got on to the boat. We had a room in which to change and to leave the trappings in until our return."
Pony Bob is shown sitting on a specially-designed mochila saddle, with four small leather bags sewn on it to hang in front and behind each leg of the rider. These cantinas, about 6 by 12 inches, held the letters, which were first wrapped in oiled silk. The horses were half-breed California mustangs, famous for speed, endurance, and dependability. Haslam pictured himself with both a pistol and rifle. The company provided the riders with .44 or .36 caliber Navy Colt revolvers, and riders had to use them. The Indians giving chase to Haslam were quite real. The Paiutes took to the warpath soon after the Pony Express began, and played havoc with several stations in Nevada. However, the service lost only one mail to their depredations, thanks to the armed riders.
After the Pony Express folded, Haslam extended his express riding (and then as a messenger on a stagecoach) with Wells, Fargo. By 1907, he was manager of the Congress Hotel in Chicago and, clearly, still fondly remembering his heroic days as Pony Bob.
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