From the St. Joseph side of the Missouri River, where the vast railroad system ended, people looked westward and dreamed of what lay out there beyond the horizon. Was it really the wild, wild West of dime novels, tall tales and dreams?
Didn’t Oregon and California beckon with stories of fortune, lands and opportunity strong enough to drive the believers westward ... to traverse the rugged Rocky Mountains and reach beyond. It was the Fur traders, gold miners and military men who first set out, followed by families traveling by covered wagon, that truly opened up the Western frontier. As these dreamers established homesteads and then towns, communication became important and in 1860, three businessmen took that need and created a unique enterprise, the Pony Express. It became one of America’s famous historic events that changed the face of our growing country. Today’s dreamers can travel the same trail the young XP Riders rode as they carried mail via horseback, from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif. Now crossing through eight states, these 1,966 miles were officially designated the Pony Express National Historic Trail by President Bush in 1992.
I have traveled the entire length of the XP trail many times during my 25 plus years of membership in the National Pony Express Association. Each time I explore, I learn new facts and see new places, which the history lover in me enjoys. My treks from east to west always begins at the Patee House, the original XP Headquarters, located in St. Joseph, Mo. Now an outstanding landmark museum and listed as “one of the top 10 Western Museums” by True West Magazine, the Patee House is a must on any XP trail excursion. Here too, down the brick street beside the museum, you can see the Jesse James home, where the outlaw met his fateful gunshot death by Bob Ford.
The Pony Express system was inaugurated April, 3, 1860, and lasted only 18 months, when it was replaced by the faster moving telegraph. All along the XP route, the founders built stations, manned and maintained for relay horses and riders. A Home-station was a larger, better equipped building where XP riders and horses rested and ate, waiting for the next return mail relays. Often these were established hotels, which were also used as Stage stations. Between these were the more numerous Relay stations, where only horses were kept for the incoming riders to exchange mounts and continue along their route.
Seventy-five miles west of the Patee House was the first home-station, located in Seneca, Kan. Here the XP riders rested at the Smith Hotel, owned by Captain John E. Smith from New Hampshire. The Hotel was also the stopping spot for passengers traveling on the Overland Stage-line to Denver, Colo. It was known for its comfortable beds and good home cooking, including Mrs. Smith’s famous handmade biscuits. Hotel guests often commented on “the lovely smells greeting us in the morning upon rising from bed.” Today, near the site of the Smith Hotel, a rock monument displays a large bronze medallion commemorating the historic Pony Express. Each June you can stand on this same spot and wave at the National Pony Express riders as they gallop by on their annual 10 day mail-relay re-enactment.
Across the street, on the corner of fourth and Main, the Seneca Pony Express Museum resides in a quaint two-storied brick building, its face recently painted and looking quite grand. When I stepped through the wooden screened front-door, I was greeted by a lady dressed in apron and bonnet. Above her, on the wall, was displayed a huge Pony Express rider sign. She told me about the history of the museum, the exhibits and its ongoing renovation project. She happily related how volunteers and donations kept the museum going AND growing.
I set out to explore, wandering past a “prairie schooner” wagon and frontier life exhibit. I learned about how Kansas had played a large part in the emigrant story. I entered the oil-lamped “bar,” now set up for soft-drinks and snacks, with its dandy parlor, complete with decorated tables and a working upright piano. Just past the bar, I discovered the Pony Express relay stable and blacksmith shop filled with all types of equine items.
Throughout the museum, “period” rooms were re-created, many of which used items from the historic Smith Hotel, including one with an ornate wooden bed covered in a beautiful handmade quilt. I overheard one visitor comment that the bed was shorter then those nowadays and that his feet would be hanging over the carved foot-board. In another “room” a tin bath tub waited for a dusty stage passenger, commode and mirror beside a stain-glass doorway, adjacent to the country kitchen. I could almost hear Mrs. Smith say her biscuits where done and it made my tummy remember it was way past lunchtime.
Before saying farewell, I did take one peek into the small, dark, thick-plank wooden jail-room. The sign on the outside read “This was the oldest original Cowboy jail door in America” ... I wonder if Kansas had different doors for the outlaws? ❖