The California Gold Country is Bustling with Legends and Stories
The Gold Country of California provides tourists with a wealth of vacation opportunities. Here’s another segment of our adventures in this fascinating part of America.
Our El Dorado experience
During our last visit to the Gold Country, we were fortunate to attend a special dinner at the historic Sportsman’s Hall Restaurant in woodsy Pollock Pines, California – home and headquarters of the National Pony Express Association.
At the dinner we were in the elegant company of the El Dorado Rose and some of her court, along with the Director of Tourism for El Dorado County, and two El Dorado County Supervisors. They were all excellent ambassadors for El Dorado County, and great people with which to share a wagon.
The wagon ride
Our day included a guided tour and transportation to dinner via a vintage horse-drawn wagon that clopped along the celebrated Lincoln Highway and the Pony Express Trail on route to the landmark Sportsman’s Hall.
The congenial District Archaeologist of the USDA, Karin Klemic provided captivating facts about the great Eldorado National Forest that surrounded us. This densely wooded park is a destination that every wilderness loving family should have on its future vacation calendar.
The Sportsman’s Hall Restaurant
This celebrated restaurant is a showplace of Pony Express paraphernalia – and was the main Home Station for the Pony Express in California back in 1880.
It was also an important stagecoach station for food and refreshments along what is today’s California Highway 50 and the old Pony Express Trail.
The feature speaker at our dinner was the very impressive and entertaining president of the National Pony Express Association, Mr. James Swigart. After Mr. Swigart’s enthusiastic talk, the audience was ready to saddle up, and ride like the wind in the next annual Pony Express Re-Ride from Missouri to California.
About the Pony Express
Whatever the level of knowledge about the history of the United States – one legend of the Old West stands out and seems to have captured the imagination of every American child – the Pony Express.
The Pony Express was the first expedited mail service from St. Joseph on the Missouri River to Sacramento and the Pacific Coast. Before the Express, mail took over a month by boat, and 24 days by overland stagecoaches between St. Joe and Sacramento. The Pony Express did it in an amazing 10 days.
The daring adventures of the Pony Express riders are the stuff that cowboy dreams are made of. Whether outriding hostile Indians, besting bandits and raging storms, or suffering the torturous heat of the Western desert – these couriers were heroes one and all.
The riders of the Pony Express
The Pony Express recruited young outdoor types (as young as 14) that were slight in weight and understood horses. They preferred riders who were morally sound and God fearing. It is an interesting fact that each rider who signed up for the service was issued a leather-bound bible. Only a dozen of the bibles are known to still exist – one sold in 2007 for just under $39,000.
No saddle bags
We learned that the Pony Express never used saddle bags to carry the mail. Such bags were too heavy – and difficult to recover and secure from one steed to another in the short time allowed the rider to switch horses. Instead the mail and letters were secured inside four locked pouches stitched onto a “mochila,” which was a lightweight soft leather cover that fit directly over a saddle like a blanket.
At one of the more than 150 home or relay stations, the rider recovered the mochila from his exhausted horse and threw it over the saddle of a waiting fresh mount. The rider then quickly mounted the new horse and sat directly on the mochila thereby assuring the mail was secure and protected for the next leg of the rugged journey.
Hard work in the wilderness
Pony Express couriers rode about 75 miles per day before being relieved and changed horses every 12 miles or so. The route from St. Joseph to Sacramento crossed the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. The route was about 2000 miles long and took 10-days of constant and hard riding. There were approximately 30 riders in the saddle on each trip and from each direction. The Pony Express had a stable of 500 horses, and 500 employees, including station men and some 90 riders.
Because the Pony Express has been so indelibly branded in the American psyche for so long a time, it is hard to grasp that the renowned service lasted just one-year and seven-months. It was summarily replaced by the transcontinental telegraph, but not before incubating legends like Buffalo Bill Cody, who at age 16 signed on to ride one of the most dangerous stretches of trail in the Wyoming Territory. Buffalo Bill later re-enacted a Pony Express Relay in each of his worldly famous Wild West Shows of the 1880s through the early 1900s.
The first re-ride of the Pony Express took place in 1923, and there have been many since. The Pony Express has been an enduring symbol of America’s strength and courage, individual heroism, and unfaltering work ethic for over 150 years. If you would like more information about this fascinating icon of the Old West look at http://www.xphomestation.com.
Last call to service
On April 9, 1983 there was a tremendous landslide along California’s American River Canyon. Heavy rocks completely covered Highway 50, the vital link between Sacramento, South Lake Tahoe, and all the small mountain communities between. Postal delivery was stopped by the slide – and April 15th (tax day) was fast approaching.
In less than 48-hours the National Pony Express Association was contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to carry the mail by horse around a 115-mile detour. Some 62 riders participated in the great “Slide Ride” of 1983. They carried more than 60,000 pieces of mail in the six-weeks that the Pony Express was activated. Each piece of mail was postmarked to commemorate the unusual event.
Although not from the great Slide Ride, we were honored to be the recipients of a commemorative letter from the national ride of 1983 (shown above).
If you go
There is so much to do and see in the Gold Country and along U.S. Route 50.
History abounds in the wild-west gold mining towns, parks, museums, and forests.
There’s gold panning, outdoor events, white water rafting, shopping, fishing and hiking galore. Known for delicious wines and unique eateries, this is a bountiful part of America that is only a few-hour’s drive from bustling San Francisco. We recommend it highly.
For more information about what the area has to offer look no further than the informative website at www.visit-eldorado.com
If you like this article by Wayne and Judy look below for two of their other stories about the California Gold Country and their suggestions of what to do and where to stay when you visit.
© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos © Judy Bayliff
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