Day 103/ June 9th – St. Joseph, MO: Orphans preferred

‘This place contains some 2,500 inhabitants, and at present is a very busy place on account of the California emigrations, which seem to center here.’ – Silas Newcomb on St. Joseph, 1850

9th Street in St. Joseph, Missouri

The wide and empty streets of St. Joseph

Even after more than three months, public transport in America still retains an unfailing capacity to dismay.  The bus into downtown St. Joseph left from somewhere on the junction near our motel.  We asked in the coffee shop where the stop was.

“Bus?” said the woman behind the counter, in a tone that suggested we had asked for the location of the nearest airship terminal.

They didn’t know at the petrol station either, or at the Hampton Inn.

“Oh, I take the bus to work!” said the hostess at Applebee’s.  We brightened.  “But I don’t know where the stop is.”

We found the stop, and took the bus – only twenty-three minutes late – into town, reflecting on the mild irony that St. Joseph was once the home of one of the most famous transport networks in American history – the Pony Express.  By the 1850s, the gold rush and a decade of emigration had turned California into a booming state, but one still very remote from the rest of America (“California is practically further removed from us than England,” commented Senator William Seward).  The quickest means of communication was a three-week stagecoach journey from St. Louis to San Francisco.  Congress was desperate to establish better links, and even experimented unsuccessfully with a mail service carried by camels.

The Pony Express was always something of a gimmick, set up by the shipping firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell to publicise a new 2,000-mile route they had pioneered across the middle of America, in the hope of winning a lucrative government mail contract.  They built some 150 relay-stations, positioned roughly ten miles apart, to stable the hundreds of horses used in the service and house the 80 riders they recruited (‘Wanted: Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows, Not Over Eighteen, Must be Expert Riders, Willing to Risk Death Daily.  Orphans Preferred.’).  Riders would make two trips each week, carrying a 20-pound mailbag over legs of roughly a hundred miles, before handing over to the next rider and waiting for the mail coming from the other direction.  The first Express service set out on April 3rd 1860, and the final rider, Billy Hamilton, arrived in Sacramento ten days later to cannon fire and general rejoicing.

Pony Express rider sculpture

Most Pony Express riders were teenage boys

St. Joseph was a natural choice to be the starting-point of the Pony Express.  It began life as a fur-trading post in 1826, and soon became an outfitting point for settlers on their way to north-western Missouri, which had recently been purchased from local tribes.  Migrants on the Oregon Trail began setting off from St. Joseph, too, and during the peak Gold Rush years of 1849-51, more emigrants left from here for California than from anywhere else in America.  By 1860, the town was the terminus of the first railroad across Missouri and of the overland telegraph from the east coast.  Almost the only building in St. Joseph surviving from this heyday was the Pony Express stables, a long, low brick building, still with its original functioning well, now housing the excellent Pony Express museum.  Like the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails, we’ll be following the route of the Pony Express for much of the rest of our walk west, and so we spent a pleasant hour poking around the exhibits. 

The Express, it seems, was doomed from the start.  It charged five dollars to carry a letter to California, and even though this was later reduced to one dollar, it compared decidedly unfavourably with the prevailing rate of three cents to send a letter by sea.  It was ruinously expensive for its backers, too, who never came anywhere near turning a profit, and who never did secure the government mail contract they’d been hoping for.  The service was briefly suspended shortly after it opened when Paiute Indians attacked its stations in Utah, but what really did for it was the telegraph.  It was being extended west from St. Joseph even as the Express opened; for much of its length it followed the same route, and the riders must have been able to witness their impending obsolescence for themselves.  On October 26th 1861, the first telegram arrived in San Francisco from the east coast; the Pony Express service closed the next day, having operated for only 18 months.

Dilapidated buildings in St. Joseph, Missouri

St. Joseph: Still the gateway to the west (of Missouri)

St. Joseph had clearly never quite recaptured its glory days as the gateway to California.  There was a row of grand Victorian villas along 9th Street, but they seemed to be competing with one another for decrepitude, with peeling paint, cracked foundations and porches covered with graffiti.  At least a third of them appeared to be uninhabited.  This must once have been an opulent neighbourhood in a booming city, but now it had been partly abandoned, and in the surrounding streets there were only seedy lounge bars (‘The Snakebite Club’), pool halls and a Marine recruiting station.  The pavements were cracked and weedy; the roads were wide and empty and seemed too big for their modern population, living among the slowly crumbling monuments to the wealth and optimism of their great-grandparents.


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