Wandering the West
When you pay a premium for express mail at the post office, you expect your package to get to its destination fast. Three or four dollars should get a small package anywhere in the U.S. in a couple of days.
In 1860 it cost $5 to get a letter from the Missouri River to the West Coast and it took 10 days or more, and people posting the letters were amazed at its speed. For a mere 19 months, the Pony Express made the 1,900-mile run from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, delivering 33,000 pieces of mail and covering a grand total of 600,000 miles.
The Park City Museum highlighted the legendary mail service in an exhibit that closed this week. Now, as the weather improves and roads dry out, you can trace part of the journey through Utah and get a feel for one of the most celebrated chapters of Western frontier adventure. Utah is the natural funnel to the far West and always has been. The lowest crossing of the Rockies is at South Pass, Wyoming, where you don’t even get the sense you’re on a mountain. You just rise over a high spot in some foothills and, lo and behold, you’ve crossed the Rockies.
With South Pass as the natural crossing, the terrain funneled California-bound emigrants down Echo Canyon into Salt Lake City and then west across the forbidden deserts of the Great Basin in Utah and Nevada. The Pony Express and the Overland stagecoaches took a slight right at the bottom end of Echo Canyon and approached the Salt Lake Valley through Henefer and over Big and Little Mountain and down through Emigration Canyon. The route was pioneered by the Donner Party in 1846 and followed by Brigham Young’s first wagon train a year later.
In Salt Lake there’s just a historic marker downtown to mark a stopping point, but farther west there are actual standing remnants of the ride. Find Fairview and Camp Floyd on a map southwest of the Salt Lake Valley, about 25 miles west of Lehi on Highway 73. The Stagecoach Inn/Camp Floyd State Park preserves an 1858 hotel and stage stop built of adobe. It’s one of Utah’s oldest remaining buildings and is restored to its pre-Civil War look. For those 19 months, a Pony Express rider would pull in, transfer his four mail cases onto a fresh horse, and take off again, staying just minutes.
From the Stagecoach Inn you can follow the trail all the way to the Nevada border at Ibapah, a lonely outpost on the Goshute Indian Reservation south of Wendover. The most interesting stop on the dirt and gravel road across the desert is Simpson Springs, where a large spring offers dependable year-round water. A handful of buildings sprang up around the springs, including a Pony Express station. One building is re-created on the site, but no one knows if it was anything like the original station.
For western history buffs, the road trip is appealing to see the few remaining remnants of a time long gone by, but also to see the landscape as it was back then. The old route ran from Salt Lake roughly down State Street to Draper where riders and mounts crossed the Jordan River to diagonal their way to Camp Floyd. It’s a little hard to visualize the Pony Express rider galloping down State Street, but get out in the west desert beyond Camp Floyd and you can get the picture a lone rider on a fast mustang, averaging seven miles an hour across terrain that is unchanged.
If you take the loop from Salt Lake to Camp Floyd to Ibapah, make sure you’ve got a full tank. There are no dependable services out here. From Ibapah, head north to Wendover and back to civilization. If you’re up for one more historical site, drive to the south end of town and kick around Wendover Air Field. The base, built for bomber pilot training in World War II (and the place where the Enola Gay atomic bombing crew trained) still stands, eerily abandoned in place.
If you can still afford to drive for the sake of sightseeing, it’s a nice springtime loop that will take all day, with time to play in Wendover before returning to the real world.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Curious facts: Although he said he was, Buffalo Bill was never a Pony Express rider. The service never made money and closed when the transcontinental telegraph was completed.
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