Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sand Springs Pony Express Station



For eighteen months, a group of brave, young men regularly rode more than 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Their job was to deliver mail and they were part of the Pony Express.

Despite the fact that it existed for such a short time, from April 3, 1860 to October 28, 1861, the fame of the Pony Express has endured. In fact, the National Park Service is exploring the possibility of designating the route as a national historic trail. Its demise was guaranteed four days before it closed by the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph wire.

In Nevada, the Pony Express route crossed the center of the state. The western half of the original route was roughly parallel to modern-day Highway 50 from Carson City to Austin. East of Austin, the route veers north of Highway 50 to the Ruby Marshes and into Utah.

Within Nevada, there were approximately 30 Pony Express stations. Few of the stations were built for permanence, so little remains of most of the sites. However, explorers can find a few places that offer an intriguing glimpse into the difficult life of the Pony Express riders.

The stations were important to the riders because the were places to change horses, replenish supplies and pick up news before riding off to the next stop.

The western-most Nevada Pony Express station was a place called Friday's, located a mile east of Stateline at Lake Tahoe. The original blacksmith shop still stands, but is not open to the public because it sits on private land.

Just over the Sierra was the next stop, Genoa. The old post office in Genoa was used as the Pony Express station. The building has long since disappeared and today, the site is the vacant lot south of the courthouse.

From Genoa, the rider headed to Carson City. The original station is gone, but records show it was located on Carson Street between 4th and 5th streets.

The next stop was in Dayton to a place called Spafford's Hall Station. That site is now a gravel pit (an historic marker just north of the downtown indicates the location) and a second Pony Express station was built on the site of the present Union Hotel.

From here, only a few of the remaining sites contain much to see, including three sites that offer the best ruins of the original stations.

One of those sites is Fort Churchill State Park, a Civil War-era fort that was built to defend Nevada settlers from hostile Indians. The fort also served as a visible reminder during the Civil War to the Confederacy that Nevada was part of the Union forces.

Further east is the Sand Springs Station, located south of massive Sand Mountain. Visitors here will find well preserved walls from the stone station that once provided a refuge to the riders (albeit an extremely dismal one). The site was excavated by University of Nevada, Reno archaeologists and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About 30 miles from Sand Mountain is the Cold Springs Station, which many consider the best preserved of the ruins. Located about a mile and half from Highway 50 (there is a wooden informational kiosk at the trailhead), the station has been studied by archaeologists and partially restored. It is also listed on the National Register.

We happen to know a bit about the Sand Springs and Cold Springs stations because both were included in a diary written in 1860 by British explorer Sir Richard Burton, who traveled the Pony Express route.

Of Sand Springs, Burton said the "land is cumbered here and there with drifted ridges of the finest sand, sometimes 200 feet high and shifting before every gale....The water near this vile hold was thick and stale with sulphury salts: it blistered even the hands."

Cold Springs was slightly more enticing, according to Burton, who described it as "a wretched place half built and wholly unroofed....Our animals, however, found good water in a rivulet from the neighboring hills."

The three best Pony Express stations to visit are: Fort Churchill, located 40 miles east of Carson City via Highway 50 and Alternate Highway 95; Sand Springs, located 25 miles east of Fallon, then a half mile north of Highway 50; and Cold Springs, located 52 miles east of Fallon, then a mile and half hike south of the highway.

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