Tall tales of Pony Express live on in Nevada

Remains of the Sand Springs Pony Express station still are visible in the Nevada desert east of Fallon, 150 years after Pony Express riders traveled the route from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., as seen May 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

Remains of the Sand Springs Pony Express station still are visible in the Nevada desert east of Fallon, 150 years after Pony Express riders traveled the route from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., as seen May 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

SAND SPRINGS - Out here, miles from nowhere, one doesn't need much of an imagination to visualize "Pony Bob" Haslam galloping by on his horse while being pursued by Indians.

As the story goes, Haslam rode a record 380-mile round trip from central Nevada to Lake Tahoe past burned-out Pony Express stations during the outbreak of the Paiute Indian War in May 1860.

Riders typically rode 75 miles, stopping at stations every 10 or 15 miles for a fresh horse. Fearful of Indians, a relief rider even paid Pony Bob $50 if he would take his ride rather than stopping to rest at Buckland's station, another Pony Express stop.

Bob took that offer and rode on, past the burned-out Cold Springs station and the station at Sand Springs, 20 miles east of Fallon, before resting for a few hours. Then he climbed on a fresh horse and rode all the way back to his home station near Lake Tahoe. A legend in bravery was born.

But Pony Bob, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, "Bronco" Charlie Miller and other braggarts who delighted readers of yesteryear with their Pony Express exploits were fakers, according to today's historians.

This month, hundreds of riders from Missouri to California will hear Pony Bob's and other stories of glory - some true and some not so true - as they again carry the mail by horseback to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.

Some will have Pony Bob on their minds as they pass the remains of stations at Fort Churchill, Buckland's, Sand Springs and Cold Springs in their ride across Northern Nevada. Those stations near Highway 50 remain readily accessible to motorists. Some are a mile or so off the main road, but signs tell tourists where to stop and walk.

"Bronco Charlie, Pony Bob and Cody (who was only 14 when the Pony Express operated) all knew each other," said Joe Nardone, historian for the Pony Express Trails Association. "They knew the truth, and they got their 15 minutes of fame."

Nardone, a retired Southern California real estate developer, has ridden the entire 1,966-mile Pony Express trail from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif.

He also walked the trail across Nevada and installed posts to mark the locations of Pony Express stations.

Nardone said mail was carried by horseback around the country into the 1920s, and Haslam might have been a rural mail postman around Virginia City.

"We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of what has become kind of an American whopper," said Christopher Corbett, author of "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express."

Unlike in other states where growing populations have obliterated most signs of the Old West, riders in Nevada still can find the Pony Express trail and stop at stations.

At Sand Springs, where signs warn of Great Basin rattlesnakes, are the rock walls of what was a sizable Pony Express station. A tiny room housed the stationmaster and riders. On the other side of the rock wall are two large stables that could have held a dozen horses. One quickly realizes the horse was the most important element in the Pony Express operation.

Sir Richard Burton, a prominent English writer who crossed the United States by stagecoach, recalled his night at Sand Springs in October 1860:

"Sand Springs deserved its name ... the land is cumbered here and there with drifted ridges of the finest sand, sometimes 200 feet high and shifting before every gale. The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts. The station house was no unfit object on such a scene - roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smoky fire in one corner, the walls open to every wind, and the interior full of dust. Of the employees, all loitered and sauntered about (like lazy) cretins except one, who lay on the ground crippled and apparently dying by the fall of a horse upon his breast bone."

Thanks to the sand that Burton abhorred, the station is surprisingly intact. Through more than half of the last 150 years, it was covered by sand blown off nearby Sand Mountain. In 1976, an archaeology class at the University of Nevada, Reno uncovered the Pony Express station right where it was supposed to be.

In its 19-month existence, the Pony Express proved to be a financial disaster for the Russell, Majors & Waddell freight company that founded it, although it charged the ungodly price of $5 per half-ounce letter.

The final Pony Express rider rode into Sacramento just a few days after the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed. More than 600 riders on horseback will participate in the annual reride June 6 to June 26.

"One reason it is remembered is because it is a heroic memory of the Old West," Corbett said. "It appeals to people because it is a benign memory. There is no slaughter of buffalo or decimation of Indians. The Pony carries no baggage. People who don't know English know of the Pony Express."

Despite the fakers, Nardone said the Pony Express riders were brave men worthy of remembrance.

Six died during the 19 months of the Pony Express. Three were killed in Nevada during the Paiute Indian War. Three died of natural causes.


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