How the U.S. Postal Service Works

The Pony Express and Eventual Reform

In the early 19th century, as the country's population began moving westward into the newly acquired territories of Louisiana, Oregon and California, the mail had to travel a much greater distance — particularly during the California gold rush. To meet the needs of the quarter of a million people who now lived in the West, the Post Office Department awarded a contract to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to carry mail to California. Mail traveled by ship from New York to Panama, moved across Panama by rail, then went on to San Francisco by ship. It should have taken three to four weeks for a letter from the East to travel to California, but it usually took longer. There were also two stagecoach routes — the Southern and Central Routes. The Central Route was shorter but couldn't be used year-round. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company had a government contract to carry mail using the Southern Route, which took 25 days.

The Pony Express was founded in 1860 by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express (COC&PP), a freight company that supplied goods to the western part of the United States. COC&PP wanted the Overland Mail Company's million-dollar government contract that used the Southern Route, so it set out to prove that the shorter Central Route could actually be used all year long. Original Pony Express mailing rates were $5 per half-ounce, but that was later lowered to $1 per half-ounce.

Eighty to 100 Pony Express riders made $100 a month to cover the 1,966 miles (3,164 kilometers) from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California — through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. They crossed the Missouri River by ferry. At any given time, two riders were traveling on the route, one in each direction. They changed horses every 10-15 miles at one of the almost 200 stations located every 5-20 miles along the route. The riders went 75 to 100 miles before stopping and handing off the mail to the next rider. They averaged 10 miles per hour and completed the route in only 10 days, proving that the Central Route was faster.­

­While it was ultimately a financial failure for the company, the Pony Express succeeded in proving that the Central Route could indeed be used year-round. But the contract remained with the Overland Mail Company. The government asked that Overland begin using the Central Route. The COC&PP received a subcontract to continue the Pony Express between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City, while the Overland Mail Company operated it from Salt Lake City to California. This was short-lived, however. On Oct. 24, 1861, the transcontinental telegraph line was completed, allowing people to send messages in minutes rather than days. So the Pony Express was shut down after only about 18 months in service, and COC&PP eventually sold it to Wells Fargo.­

By the mid-1960s, the Post Office Department was in trouble. Its management had little control over operations, and it was a sinking ship in dire need of reform. As a part of the ensuing reform, the Post Office Department officially became the United States Postal Service on July 1, 1971. At that time it became an independent establishment of the executive branch of the U.S. government rather than a part of the cabinet. It began operating more like a corporation, but with the benefit of the official mail monopoly that was established under the Private Express Statutes in 1792. Package delivery and express services do not fall under this law, making it possible for other companies to offer those services.