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150 years later, this famous mail route still mystifies. We retrace the Nevada section.
Photo: Jonni Hill (illustration); Rachid Dahnoun (rest)
On a spring morning 150 years ago, the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company started a lofty endeavor aimed at connecting the ballooning population of the West Coast with the rest of the country. That venture, the nearly 2,000-mile Pony Express Trail, promised to deliver mail across the country in 10 days or less—more than three and a half months faster than the alternative seaborne postal service, which made the nearly 20,000-mile one-way journey around Cape Horn. The Pony Express was even cheaper—a letter could be sent for only five dollars (considered a reasonable rate at the time). Over the next 18 months, mail raced on horseback across the West and Great Plains between Sacramento and St. Joseph, Missouri, the western terminus of railroads during the early 1860s.
Much of what we know about the history of the Pony Express is, as historian and author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legacy of the Pony Express, Christopher Corbett, puts it, “dubious.” As it concerns the Pony Express, history and legend seem interchangeable. Most names and dates are even debatable. But, the twisted truths and all-out fables of the Pony Express only add to its allure. Names like “Buffalo Bill” Cody, “Sawed-off Jim” Combo, “Bronco Charlie” Miller, and “Cyclone Charlie” Thompson evoke images of horsemen as rugged as the trail they rode.
One thing most of the historical accounts and legends agree on is that Nevada’s roughly 400 miles of trail were among the toughest and most dangerous of the route. Searing heat, frigid cold, blinding sandstorms, freezing blizzards, parched alkaline flats, bandits, and the bloody Paiute Indian War made the section of trail between the Sierra Nevada and Utah’s Deep Creek Station a veritable no man’s land, “a challenge to the very idea of life,” as Joseph J. Di Certo writes in his book, The Saga of the Pony Express.
Many of the stations in present-day Nevada were often set ablaze by warring Paiute and Shoshone, the station keepers often killed. The history of the American West is marred by cruel treatment of native peoples by settlers and the army, and these raids on Pony Express stations marked the boiling-over points for many bands of Paiute and Shoshone. Other stations were dismantled by later settlers for lumber. While a handful of Nevada stations remain—many as piles of rubble and weathered, crumbling walls—most have long since been reclaimed by the desert.
The first stop in present-day Nevada for an eastbound rider was Friday’s, named for one of its operators, Martin K. “Friday” Burke. The station was also known as Lakeside for its proximity to Lake Tahoe. Friday’s was more substantial than most Nevada stations. Westbound riders were surely grateful for the well-appointed station after an arduous journey across Nevada, capped by one of the steepest sections of the trail, the nearly 3,000-foot climb up Kingsbury Grade. A statue in front of Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in Stateline commemorates Friday’s Station.
Nevada’s oldest permanent settlement was also a stop along the Pony Express. Genoa, sometimes referred to by its original name, Mormon Station, was established as a trading post along the Overland Emigrant Trail during the California Gold Rush about a decade before the Pony Express originated. Today, the quaint town is a tourist favorite, with historic buildings, a friendly bed and breakfast, family friendly festivals and events, and a replica of the town’s first structure at Mormon Station State Historic Park.
Today’s capital of Nevada was a fledgling settlement in the days of the Pony Express. Mainly a supply center and social hub for nearby mining districts, Carson City also served as a Pony Express home station (also called a rider relay station) and the headquarters of the western superintendent, William Finney. The original site has long since vanished, but a plaque at the corner of Carson and 3rd Streets commemorates the station.
Another of Nevada’s oldest settlements, Dayton grew after the discovery of gold in the area in 1849. Also called Spafford Hall’s Station, Dayton was one of the final populated Nevada stops for eastbound riders. Over the life of the Pony Express, two stations existed in Dayton, the site of the original consumed by a dredge pit in the 1930s, and the second site is now occupied by the Union Hotel on Main Street. The adjacent rock wall is the last remnant of the station.
Also called Reed’s Station, Miller’s was originally established on the Carson River along the California Emigrant Trail in 1849 to service the vast number of pioneers traveling to the gold fields of California. Nothing of the station remains today, and the site is on private land.
For the final seven to eight months of the Pony Express, riders followed the Northern Route across the Carson Sink. The more direct route was established in the summer of 1861, when the Butterfield Overland Mail Company took over this section of the route.
Sand Springs Station
Sand Springs, left, is one of the most visited original Pony Express stations in Nevada. The collection of decaying walls, numerous interpretive signs, and proximity to Sand Mountain and U.S. Highway 50 make the site a popular stop. The site was excavated by University of Nevada, Reno archaeologists and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The exact location of Middlegate Station is unknown. Two possible spots include White Rock Springs to the south of U.S. Highway 50 or anywhere along the four-mile-long arroyo between Middlegate and Westgate that often has seeps or short lengths of running water.
During the first year of the Pony Express, riders traveled the Southern Route.
Fort Churchill and Buckland’s Stations
During the first few months of the Pony Express, riders stopped at Buckland’s Station, across the Carson River from the future site of Fort Churchill. Through the spring of 1860, aggression between settlers and the local Paiute Tribe led to the Pyramid Lake massacre. Following the massacre, a military post was built at Fort Churchill. Soon after the completion of the adobe fort, the Pony Express transferred its station there from Buckland’s. Today, Fort Churchill State Historic Park includes a collection of adobe ruins, campsites, and a visitor center. The former site of Buckland’s Station is occupied by a two-story house built in the 1870s after Fort Churchill was dismantled.
Hooten Wells Station
Rock ruins remain about 12 miles past U.S. Alternate 95, south of Buckland’s Station. Hooten Wells, also called Desert Station, was probably used for the last few months of the Pony Express and later during freight efforts.
Williams Station, occasionally referred to as Honey Lake, was the site of the Pyramid Lake massacre. The accounts regarding the catalyst vary, but the accepted story is that men from Williams Station kidnapped and assaulted two Paiute women. Men from the tribe rode to Williams Station and took their revenge by killing those they found and burning the station.
Carson Sink Station
This adobe fort was home to what most accounts consider the best source of good water in the Carson Sink region. Little remains of the station today, aside from two deteriorating adobe walls of the former corral.
Cold Springs Station
Cold Springs, the best preserved Nevada station, is located on U.S. Highway 50 about halfway between Fallon and Austin. Soon after the station opened, a band of Paiutes killed one of the keepers, stole the station’s horses, and burned it down. The station was rebuilt out of native rocks and mud with gun turrets in the thick walls to defend against future attacks. A highway-adjacent interpretive center details the history of the site and marks the start of a 1-1/2 mile trail to the station. The station included a barn, corral, living quarters, and storage area.
Smith’s Creek Station
The home station at Smith’s Creek, on the eastern slope of the Desatoya Mountains, was described as one of the more comfortable Nevada stations. Comfortable, however, did not equate to peaceful. The station was often razed by local Paiutes, and squabbles among its workers were reportedly common. The first person hanged in Nevada, William Carr, was hanged for the murder of Bernard Cherry, whom he shot dead after an incident at Smith’s Creek. Today, some adobe and rock walls mark the corral and station house.
Dry Wells Station
Also known as Mount Airy, Dry Wells marked the halfway point on the long ride between Smith’s Creek and Reese River stations. Little is known of the station or its exact location.
Reese River Station
Also known as Jacob’s Spring, Reese River was another station that was targeted by early Indian raids. Jacobsville eventually grew from the station before being abandoned as the Lander County seat in favor of Austin in 1863.
Simpson’s Park Station
Another of the more comfortable Nevada stations, Simpson’s Park had good water, plenty of trees, and lush grass. Unfortunately, much like its neighbors, the station was often attacked by Shoshones. One such instance in May 1860 included the killing of then station keeper James Alcott. Stone foundations denote the former site.
Cape Horn Station
There is debate among historians whether Cape Horn Station even existed.
Dry Creek Station
It is likely that Dry Creek served as a home station. Problems with Indians marked much of the station’s run, much like many nearby stations. In the spring of 1860 its keeper, Ralph Rosier, was killed and scalped, probably by Shoshones. Some remains of Dry Creek and a monument with a brass commemorative plaque exist on the Dry Creek Ranch about four miles north of U.S. Highway 50.
Grubb’s Well Station
Also called Camp Station, there was no station at Grubb’s Well for at least the first seven months of the Pony Express. While historians question its existence, some accounts suggest a rough, teepee-like structure existed near a shallow alkaline well.
Robert’s Creek Station
Robert’s Creek holds the dubious distinction as Nevada’s first station to be attacked by Indians. On April 13, 1860, the second trip from St. Joseph was delayed when horses were driven off the station by local Shoshones. Robert’s Creek later became a telegraph station.
Sulphur Springs Station
It is debated whether Sulphur Springs served the Pony Express or if it was built to facilitate the opening of the Overland Stage in the summer of 1861.
Diamond Springs Station
Little remains of the original station, named for the nearby crystalline springs that still run today, except a 1960 commemorative plaque near the ranch house about a mile south of
the station site.
Jacob’s Well Station
No station existed at Jacob’s Well until sometime after the fall of 1860 and little is known about the site. Little, if any, evidence of the station remains.
Ruby Valley Station
The uncommonly rich soil of the Ruby Valley enabled the Ruby Valley Station to grow food and hay for riders and nearby stations. The relatively lush surroundings also supported nearby Shoshone and army camps. One of the more heroic stories from the Nevada Pony Express comes from this station, where, upon learning that every station between Ruby Valley and Salt Lake City had been destroyed by warring Indians, rider Billy Fisher rode the entire 300 miles between the two. A brass marker, provided by the Northeastern Nevada Historical Society, identifies the site.
Butte Creek Station
Also called Bate’s Station, Butte was also the target of occasional Shoshone raids. Parts of the fireplace, a crumbling wall, and some stone foundations mark the site today.
Egan Canyon Station
In July of 1860, about 80 Shoshones abducted station keeper Mike Holten and a rider named Wilson and helped themselves to station supplies. Rider William Dennis, en route from Ruby Valley Station, saw the invaders and slipped away unnoticed. He found Lieutenant Weed and 60 soldiers on the way back to Ruby Valley and returned with them to the station. Nearly 20 of the Shoshone were killed in the ensuing battle, and the two captives were freed.
Schell Creek Station
The home station at Schell Creek, at the northern end of the Egan Mountains, was also know as Fort Schellborne for the cavalry company stationed there following the Pyramid Lake massacre, which devastated many stations in western Nevada. Two log structures and other building ruins from the old fort remain, none of which are necessarily part of the Pony Express station.
Spring Valley Station
The exact location of the Spring Valley Station is not known, but most accounts agree that a station existed in the Spring Valley.
Antelope Springs Station
Antelope Springs existed only for a couple of months until Paiutes burned it. The station was never rebuilt.
Prairie Gate Station
The final Nevada station (or first for westbound riders) was built a couple months after the trail opened to break up the long ride between Utah’s westernmost station, Deep Creek, to Antelope Springs in Nevada. The premature end of Antelope Springs also made Prairie Gate an integral stop. The station was also referred to as Eight Mile Station.
Sesquicentennial Re-Ride Event
Each year the National Pony Express Association celebrates the historic trail by re-riding its nearly 2,000-mile length. More than 600 riders are expected to participate in the 150th-anniversary event, June 6-26. Events are planned at four Nevada stations. The mail will arrive in Genoa about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday June 8, Carson City about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday June 9, Fort Churchill about 2 p.m. Wednesday June 9, and Schellbourne mid-morning Saturday June 12. xphomestation.com, 916-332-8382
WORTH A CLICK
National Pony Express Association
Town of Genoa
Mormon Station State Historic Park
Fort Churchill State Historic Park