Potpourri

A HISTORY OF THE XP RIDES AND THE PONY EXPRESS

A brief history of the XP rides and its relationship to the original pony express and the historic trail are in order. The majority of trails used in the original XP rides were along the route of the pony express with only a few deviations made necessary by the advances of modern man. Most of the deviations are made over old mining and freight trails that include the Simpson road, the Walker trail, and the Jedidiah Smith routes. Starting in 1988, the route was completed between Washoe Lake near Carson City, Nevada and Utah Valley on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. There are only 9 pavement crossings and few gates in the entire 650 miles of trail. Few commercial establishments and places of human habitation exist along the trail that remains remarkably as it was during the days of the original pony express. The experience of completing a ride over this trail is incredible.

The original Pony Express was organized by the gigantic freighting firm of Russell, Waddel and Majors in April 1860 as a means to draw attention to the suitability of an all weather route through the central corridor of the western United States. Union interests deemed it imperative that a link be made with California and her gold fields that would not be subject to closure by Confederate forces. Senator Gwinn, of California, together with Mr. Russell was able to convince the remaining partners to establish a 10 day mail service using relays of horses over the already present stage stations, the operation was functioning in less than 4 months. Of course those were the days before you had to get permits and sanctioning prior to doing anything. The trail from St. Joseph, the eastern terminus, to South Pass in Wyoming generally followed the main east/west migration route of the Oregon/Mormon trail complex. From the Big Sandy, on the west slope of the Rockies, the trail followed the Mormon’s route into the Salt Lake Valley. From Salt Lake to Sacramento, the route was along the Egan or Simpson route used by the Chorpenning Mail Service. The daring adventure lasted a mere 18 months before its usefulness disappeared with the advent of the transcontinental telegraph. The romance of the enterprise, however, stirred great emotion from the time of its inception, and that emotion continues today. One would be hard pressed to find a single schoolboy who has not been enthralled with the tales of the Pony Express.

In 1976, during the bicentennial year, a small group of endurance riders, from the United States and Europe, set out from St. Joseph in an attempt to ride to Sacramento on the original trail. At that time there were no maps of the original route. The only contemporary description of the trail was the itinerary of Sir Richard Burton’s book, “On the Road to the City of the Saints.” Burton had kept a fairly accurate record of the trail and the stations along the way. With a copy of the book and less than a weeks planning, 14 riders and their support crews, with 2 horses apiece, were able to follow the trail descriptions written 116 years earlier. Within a few days the riders, crews and management were caught up in an experience that none of them have ever gotten over. The farther west they came, the easier it was to follow the itinerary and by the time that they reached Wyoming it was virtually impossible to get off the trail, as it became more and more distinct. The western half of the trail remains today, for the most part, just as it was when the last travelers used it over 100 years ago.

In 1979 the British Post Office sponsored a second endurance ride over the historic trail to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the death of Sir Roland Hill, the inventor of the modern postage stamp. This ride was conducted under rules very similar to AERC’s with the major exception being that each rider was allowed to use as many as 4 horses during the 1900 mile event. While the route and logistics of this event were being researched, a complete set of maps were finally compiled for the entire route of the pony express. By 1980, interested parties were already beginning to discuss some way to tie together the Western States/Capital to Capital trail with the XP trail.

Countless hours have been spent since 1976 discussing ideas on how to properly use the XP trail and thereby preserve it. There are a vast number of ideas as to what constitutes proper use and these ideas change rapidly with the shifting political winds. During the mid seventies, some government officials were attempting to prevent the use of the trail with horses because there was no environmental impact statement as to what horses would do to the trail. The obvious common sense approach to the preservation of historic trails was to use them. During the fall of 1983

Dave Nicholson endeavored to put together a means whereby a number of riders could get together and ride a section of pony express trail. A series of point to point rides along the original trail would get the job done. By riding a fifty mile section of the trail each day, the project would be eligible for AERC sanction and would have a broader appeal. By combining five different rides in sequential order a greater number of riders would be able to travel from afar and ride more miles for less money. The original brochure, Once Upon a Duck, was produced and made available to selected endurance riders around the west. Amidst howls of protest that multi-day rides were abusive to horses, impossible to do, and would unfairly skew the beloved national championship points system, the sanction was canceled for the rides. It took a board decision two weeks prior to the ride to allow the ride to go on.

Seventeen riders met at the site of the Joe’s Dugout XP Station, just south of Salt Lake City, in late winter of 1983 and the sport of multi-day was on its way. Five days later (about six) riders rode into Schellbourne Station, having just ridden all five days on the same horse. The concept was so popular that by the fall of 83, another series was organized on the trail from western Nevada. From that time forward there has always been at least two multi-day rides a year. Although the original trail had grown over and was very difficult to locate in many areas, it took just a few years of constant use by endurance riders for the trail to reappear. Where it used to take weeks to find the trail it has now become quite distinct along the Utah and Nevada portions.

Most of the landowners and government officials along the way have become enthusiastic supporters of the XP events. Continual efforts to maintain the goodwill have resulted in the restoration of markings and the trail itself. By the fall of 1987 the trail had been located and restored all of the way from Utah Valley to Cold Springs in western Nevada. For the first time, riders were able to ride the entire distance without having to trailer around segments or travel for any great distance along improved roads. Various government agencies have helped by providing new signs and markers for the routes. Endurance riders everywhere can be proud of the way the trail has been used and is coming back to life.

Early 1988 marked a new milestone in the modern history of the XP trail as a new route had been developed that made use of other historic routes, as well as the XP trail, to connect the Western States/Capital to Capital trail to the XP trail at Cold Springs. Endurance riders were able to ride the 850 miles between Salt Lake and Sacramento, some went the entire way in one year on a single horse.

The primary objectives of the XP rides on the original trail are to preserve the historic trails through proper use and to maintain a trail link between Salt Lake and Carson City so that we and our descendants can relive the experiences of our pioneer forefathers as they saw this vast new country for the first time.

Wendell T. Robie, the founder and former president of the Western States Trail Ride, offered to the world, in 1955, his vision of a continuous trail through the high summit divides of the Sierra Nevada mountain range that would traverse the natural scenic areas and maintain an absolute wilderness character. Wendell always expressed that the virtue of such a trail would lie in helping to preserve the historic trails of the old west in encouraging people to return to a simple life and appreciation of nature, history and the outdoors, through the use of their horses. The concept of a modern trail, linking Salt Lake to Sacramento, is dedicated to the memory of Wendell Robie

The concept of multi-day riding continues to grow with numerous rides all over the country now common. Starting in 1992, the XP rides continued to branch out into the National Park areas of southern Utah. By changing the format into multiple days out of one campsite, more riders were able to participate to the point that many people now ride multi-day rides exclusively.

Over the years, numerous riders have expressed a desire to ride the entire trail again.  In late 1997 a decision was made to run another ride all the way from St. Joseph to Sacramento.  The support for the ride was overwhelming and in June of 2001 our group started west from St. Joseph.   Development of the Highway 50 corridor over the Sierra prevented our large group from continuing on to Sacramento, so we ended our ’01 ride in Virginia City.  Many details and photos can be found elsewhere on this site.