In the mid-19th century getting the important news from the East Coast to Marin County was far from easy. When California became the 31st State in 1850, news from the East Coast was delivered by sailing ship or by overland mail.
The trip by boat could take two to six months from the East Coast. The overland mail, when it could get through at all, typically took a month or more to span the continent from coast to coast. By the mid-1850s news of special significance could be rushed overland from Fort Kearny, Nebraska (the westerly limit of the telegraph) to Fresno in three to four weeks where it would then be telegraphed to San Francisco.
The Pony Express, begun on April 12, 1860, boasted an average delivery time of just 10 days, a considerable improvement in the time needed to convey the news. The Pony, as it was referred to in newspapers, was greeted with great enthusiasm. Here’s how it was described in the April 13, 1860 edition of the Daily Alta California: “Decidedly the great event, since admission of our State into the Union …. is the event of the arrival at Fort Churchill [Carson City, Nevada] yesterday afternoon of the Overland Pony Express in eight and a half days from the end of the telegraph line leading westward out of St. Louis, thus spanning the North American continent, with lightning and horse flesh, in about the same time that 40 years ago it took to get from New York to Boston…. Only those who have toiled wearily over the great deserts which intervene between California and the Missouri River will be able to fully estimate what has been accomplished.”
The arrival of the first rider at Fort Churchill was celebrated by a nine gun salute and “immense assemblage” of excited citizens. The Alta newspaper report went on to say: “In a very short time private telegraphic dispatches dated in Washington and New York on the afternoon of the 3rd instant – last week ! [i.e. just nine days before] -- began to flash over the wires across the Sierra Nevada….”
The Pony Express became well known for impressive achievements. On April 24, 1860, for example, a relay of men mounted on horseback rode from St. Joseph on the Missouri River to Sacramento, a distance of 1,800 miles, in 10 days and one hour. Despite these heroics the Pony Express lasted only 18 months. The Pony was officially terminated when, on October 26, 1861, the telegraph from San Francisco to New York was completed.
During its tenure, the Pony Express was how Marin County learned of significant national events; among them Abraham Lincoln’s election and the commencement of the Civil War. The presidential election was held on November 6, 1860. The Election Pony carrying a brief summary of election results from the East, left Fort Kearny at 1 p.m. on November 7th with a promise to travel in extra quick time. Indeed, the election results arrived at Fort Churchill on November 14th at 1 a.m. covering the 1,300 mile journey from Fort Kearny to Fort Churchill in just six and a half days.
That Lincoln was elected President was the headline in California newspapers on Thursday morning, November 15, 1860, just eight days after the election and before all the votes had been counted in many local races. The California presidential vote, for instance, was not completed until several weeks after Election Day.
The delay in California was not decisive because California’s four electoral votes were not needed for Lincoln to prevail. He won all of the free northern states with 169 electoral votes, more than the 153 needed for the victory. In the final California tally, of the 119,812 votes cast, Lincoln won by just 734 votes over Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat and by 4,764 votes over John Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat. John Bell, running on the Constitutional Union ticket, finished far behind.
By November 25, 1860 the vote count in Marin County was complete. Lincoln won the county with 408 of 993 votes cast or 41.1% of the vote. Breckinridge and Douglas were in a virtual tie for second place with about 29% of the vote and Bell was a distant fourth. Lincoln’s share of the Marin vote was about the same as his national share of 39.8%.
The next significant event which reached California via The Pony Express was the Civil War which began with the attack by Confederate troops on Fort Sumter on April 12 and 13, 1861. The story of the attack on Fort Sumter was written in St. Louis on April 14, 1861, telegraphed to Fort Kearny, and arrived via The Pony at Fort Churchill on April 24th. It was telegraphed from there for publication across California. The Alta published an Extra on the afternoon of April 24, 1861 exclaiming: “Arrival of the Pony. Attack on Fort Sumter! Surrender of Maj. Anderson! CIVIL WAR COMMENCED”.
Marin County’s first newspaper, The Marin County Journal, which began publication on March 23, 1861, documented the beginning of the Civil War in its sixth issue on April 27th. The Journal headlined: “Intelligence by Pony. Fort Sumpter (sic) Evacuated. Civil War Inaugurated.” News of the war had reached the west coast on April 24th but because the Journal published only once a week it was not available in Marin County until Saturday, April 27th.
The news of these two major national events was not known in California or Marin until more than a week after they had happened. However, thanks to the Pony Express the news was available on the west coast many days sooner than would have otherwise been the case. In October 1861, just six months later, the direct telegraph link from coast to coast would end the Pony Express and make news of major national events available to all Americans within a matter of hours rather than days.