Pony Express ran into history 150 years ago

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This is a day when a legend of the Old West began: The first Pony Express riders set out 150 years ago today from San Francisco and St. Joseph, Mo. The Pony Express, which brought the news and the mail from the east to the west in only 10 days, electrified the nation when it started April 3, 1860. It cut communication time between east and west in half. Only 18 months later it was obsolete, done in by the telegraph.

On its first day, Pony Express riders left San Francisco, heading east, and St. Joseph, Mo., heading west. Daring young men on fast horses pounded along day and night 1,966 miles over prairies and deserts, over the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, through searing heat and blinding snowstorms.

They rode in relays, a rider jumping off his worn pony and onto another. "We stopped for nothing," express rider Charles Cliff was reported to say.

The Pony Express trail led over what is now Highway 50. On the way west, the riders rode over the Sierra and down to Sacramento. San Francisco was the western terminal, and Pony Express riders usually rode riverboats from Sacramento to San Francisco, but the boats didn't run on Sundays, and for some months, the express riders came through Benicia, Martinez, Lafayette and Oakland.

The pony, celebrated in movies, books, dime novels, Wild West shows and legends, is part of the legacy of the Old West. It began on April 3, 1860, when the first eastbound rider, a gent named James Randall, picked up his mailbag loaded with "full dispatches," as the papers reported, and mounted his wiry pony in front of the Alta California Telegraph Co. office at Merchant and Montgomery streets in San Francisco.

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