The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri

An invitation from The Beenders Walker Group, the public relations agency that hosted me at the Lake of the Ozarks, almost went into the trash bin until I saw the magic words, “Come spend three days in St. Joseph celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.” I was hooked and off I went, cowboy boots, saddlebags and hat.

So how long did the Pony Express last? Who was the youngest rider? Where did it start and where did it end? How many horses did they use? How long did each rider ride and where did they rest? What about the weather, Indians and robbers? How much did it cost? All the answers to follow.

First some facts- St. Joseph is 35 miles north of the Kansas City International Airport and has a population of 86,000. It was founded, as a city, in 1843 by Joseph Robidoux, who arrived in the area in 1826 to open a trading post. If “everything is up to date in Kansas City,” what about St. Jo? What is there to see and do? You can reach Kansas City in three hours plus from LaGuardia airport. My home for three nights was the Drury Inn & Suites, a privately owned, Midwest- centered chain of affordable hotels. Free hot breakfast and evening beverage and snacks (alcoholic beverages included and enough food to allow many people to skip dinner). There are free long distance calls, free Wi-Fi, popcorn popping 24 hours, an indoor pool and fitness center.

Recently named one of America’s “Top 10 Western Cities” by True West Magazine, St. Joseph is where the Pony Express began on April 3, 1860. Jesse James was killed on the very same date, exactly 22 years later. In 1804 Lewis & Clark camped on the banks of the Missouri River near what is now downtown St. Joseph before continuing on their expedition across America. Jesse James moved to St. Joseph in 1881 as Tom Howard. The $10,000 reward was too much to resist for gang member Bob Ford, who shot and killed him. In 1889 Aunt Jemima pancake flour, invented in St. Joseph, was the first self-rising flour for pancakes and the first ready-mix food ever to be introduced commercially. Long-time CBS-TV News anchorman Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph in November 1916. Portions of the Academy Award-winning 1973 movie Paper Moon were filmed in various locations in downtown. Movie stars Jane Wyman and Ruth Warrick, musician Eminem, and jazz musician Coleman Hawkins are from St. Joseph.

The Pony Express lasted from April 1860 until October 1861. Most people I asked guessed 5-10 years (me included). There were 80 riders paid $100-$125 a month and it is rumored that the youngest rider was 11 years old; the oldest in his mid-40s. It started in St. Joseph and ended in Sacramento, a total of 1,840 miles. The people in California say it started there and ended in St. Jo. The cost of a letter sent by Pony Express started at $5 and at the end of its run it was down to $1. Research showed that only two mail pouches were lost. The riders carried a Navy Colt Model 1851 and believed a fast horse could outrun trouble. There were originally 400 horses purchased and each rider rode an average of 75 miles per day. There were 157 relay stations each 5-20 miles apart where the riders would change horses, eat and sleep. Since the riders were recruited from their hometowns they tended to ride from and back to their home base. Weather, Indian raids and robberies were all part of the hazards.

Where to eat

J.C. Wyatt Home- The owner and chef are both transplanted New Yorkers. Built in 1891 it is a Victorian era home restored to seat 40 people for dinner. It is by reservation only (no walk-ins) as the chef buys fresh ingredients when planning each meal. The upstairs is a museum of the era homes. Definitely reserve for their cooking classes.

Galvin’s Dinner House- Fried chicken is their specialty and it is “Finger Licking Good.” Try the homemade dinner rolls, mashed potatoes and sweet corn.

Boudreaux’s- The owners are originally from Louisiana & LSU paraphernalia is everywhere. Seafood Cajun/Creole style is their specialty.

Bandana’s BBQ Restaurant- Next door to Druhy Inn. Try the BBQ beans, pork and beef platter.

What to see

Your first stop should be the visitor’s center next door to the library. There are murals and interactive kiosk tables. I especially liked the $1 library books on sale.

Patee House & Jesse James Home Museum- Formerly a hotel. In 1958 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. It was the headquarters for the Pony Express. True West Magazine named it one of America’s top 10 Western Museums. I rode the “Wild Thing” Carousel. The adjacent Jesse James Museum has artifacts from his grave and the story of his death in 1882.

Pony Express Museum- The site where the overland mail service began on April 3, 1860.

Missouri Valley Trust Bank Building- A former bank with ornate carved oak woodwork, stained glass, window teller cages and a walk-in vault.

Mount Mora Cemetery- Established in 1851, it is the burial grounds for three governors and two Pony Express riders.

Missouri Western State University- If you are a football fan this is the new home of the Kansas City Chiefs Summer Camp.

Tobiason’s Stained Glass- Rick and Terri Rader operate this shop for commissioned glass artwork and restoration. I took a basic class and produced a stained glass plaque (with help).

Albrecht-Kemper Museum- Features 18th, 19th & 20th Century artwork.

Glore Psychiatric Museum- Think Friday The 13th meets Frankenstein. Replicas, artifacts, documents and photos as to the way mental illness was treated for the past 7,500 years. The current state-operated psychiatric hospital is nearby but there are no tours.

Remington Nature Center- A full-sized replica of a 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth greets you. Lots of Native American artifacts.

Parkway System- 26 miles through parks and past homes. It was developed in 1918 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Some of the 150 homes directly on the Parkway have been restored to their 19th Century elegance. There are still many available as “Fixer Uppers.” The prices are so low.

Krug Park- 162-acre park with a natural-bowl amphitheater rose garden, gazebo and sculpture garden. During the holiday season it becomes Holiday Park with lights, displays and elves.

Pony Express Monument- Bronze statue of a Pony Express rider. Dedicated in 1940.

Twin Spires- Former Immaculate Conception/Queen of Apostles Church now open to the public for weddings, receptions etc.

There were a few sites I did not get a chance to visit but locals highly recommend them- Robidoux Row Museum- A series of connected houses built in the 1840’s and restored to include Robidoux’s personal quarters.

The Wyeth-Tootle Museum- An 1879 Gothic building, which includes exhibits dealing with 19th Century St. Joseph.

Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum- (in nearby Atchison Kansas)- Gothic revival cottage built in 1861, which includes costumes from the 2009 movie Amelia.

Terrible’s Frontier Casino- I would think they could come up with a better name for a casino.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find all that history in a city the size of St. Joseph. That is what I am discovering about these United States. There is a lot to see and do in so many places close to home.

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The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri
The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri
The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri
The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri
The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri
The Pony Express & St. Joseph, Missouri