Thursday, July 27, 2017

Off the Trail: Jesse James and the Pony Express


Platte City is beginning to feel like the west to us. We are seeing road signs like Snake Hill and Rattlesnake Cutoff. Names like Kit Carson and Jesse James are showing up on Historic Markers and many of the roads we are driving are part of the Sante Fe Trail. Fred turned to me while we were driving the other day and said “It feels like Sunday night when I was a kid watching Bonanza and Gunsmoke was coming on next.”

Johnny Fry and his horse Sylph.
Yesterday we drove into St. Joseph Missouri to tour the Pony Express National Museum.
The Pony Express was headquartered in St. Joseph at the Patee House, just a few blocks away from the stables. The service was started in an effort to make communication with the west coast of the United States quicker. California had become a state, gold had been discovered at Pikes Peak and political tensions were rising between free states and slave states. Timely correspondence had become a necessity.
The Pony Express Museum is built on the site of the old Pikes Peak Stables which was once used to house horses used by the Pony Express riders. There are a few stalls on display showcasing the equipment needed to keep the horses ready to ride. Blacksmithing tools and implements used in leather work can be seen, as well as examples of the specially made mochilla saddles used by the riders to carry the mail.

The trail of the Pony Express rider.
Large murals show the routes and the stations that riders stopped at to change horses. Relay stations for changing horses were spaced 10-15 miles apart. Home stations for changing riders were spaced 90-120 miles apart. The entire route covered 2000 miles between St. Joseph Missouri and Sacramento, California.

The first run began on April 3 1860 when Johnny Fry and his horse Sylph left the stables in St. Joseph. In Sacramento Harry Roff took off heading east. On April 14 the mail reached its destination.

My favorite portion of the museum was the room dedicated to the stories of individual riders who ranged in age from 11 to 40 something. Not all riders have been identified as there are no existing employment or payroll records. The museum invites anyone whose family history includes legends of the Pony Express to share that history with them.

Archaeological dig at the Pony Express Stable.
I was surprised to learn that the Pony Express only ran for 19 months. The completion of the transcontinental telegraph made them obsolete.
The legends are so big. Intrepid riders and their stories of success despite horrible weather, road hazards, raging rivers and indian hostilities are a treasured part of our history and of our identity as Americans.

St. Joseph is also where Jesse James was living when he was killed. The house is a small 20x30 ft structure in St. Josephs historic district. It is preserved on the grounds of Patee house and is said to look as it did in the 1880’s when James lived there with his wife and children. It even has a bullet hole in the wall from the day he was killed.
Stories of the James gang  are told all around this part of Missouri. The nearby town of Liberty has a Jesse James Bank Museum in the old Clay County Savings Association.
The bank was the site of the first successful daylight peacetime bank robbery attributed to the James gang. It has been preserved in its 1866 state and provides a history of the robberies committed by Jesse James and his family.

We were lucky enough to meet Mark, a Missouri native and his wife Karen while we were staying in Platte City.  Mark saw our names on Jim and Diana Belisle’s blog exploRVistas. Knowing that we were following the Lewis and Clark trail Mark and Karen invited us to contact them when we got to the Kansas City area. We had a great dinner meet-up talking about local history and their plans to become fulltime RVers. Mark filled us in on some of the local lore surrounding the James gang. They even took us to see Jesse James grave which had been moved to a local cemetery to try and discourage vandalism.

Meeting new people on the road is one of our favorite parts of the RVing lifestyle. We are happy to have spent time with Mark and Karen and hope to see them on the road very soon.

Pony Express National Museum
914 Penn St
St Joseph, Missouri

Jesse James Bank Museum
103 N Water St
Liberty, Missouri

Jesse James Home at the Patee House Museum
1202 Penn St
St Joseph, Missouri


  1. It's so cool that you were able to meet up with Mark and Karen, Bonnie!

    It's fun to see the landscape change as you head west. Greens turn to tans, spaces grow wider and the skies seem bigger. :)

  2. You are right Jim. The ever changing landscape is one of my favorite parts of this lifestyle.

  3. We have had the tours in St. Joseph on the list for some time now. Can't believe we live so close and have not gone there. We also need to get to those local Lewis and Clark sites you mention in a past blog - AND- the Indian mounds near St. Louis.

    Funny story, or rather smart move, on my father's part. He joined the local chapter of the archeological society and eventually became the local chapter president. He correctly figured he would have better access to sites if he was a member. Smart!

    Thanks again for the visit while you were in town. Perhaps what I learned from the visit is how you guys handle not seeing everything the area has to offer.

    1. What a great idea of your Dads, Mark. That would be a great way to see the dig in progress and get a look at the good stuff.