Article Published in The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT)
“In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling – sweeping toward us nearer and nearer – growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined – nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear – another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!”
– Mark Twain on the Pony Express
One-hundred and forty-five years ago this week, on April 7, 1860, the Pony Express reached Salt Lake City on its first eastbound journey. Just before midnight, in stormy weather, a rider on horseback arrived at the relay station now marked by a monument near Temple Square.
He handed off the mailbag to the next rider, who encountered such difficult weather that it took him five hours to travel five miles. But the company’s relay team of 40 wiry young men completed the 1,966-mile journey from Sacramento, Calif., to St. Joseph, Mo., in just nine days. It was an important record for Utah residents, who at the time were accustomed to getting news from Washington three months late.
Tales like these from the Pony Express offer more than just a picturesque history of the rugged West. They’re pertinent to a subject being debated by congressional lawmakers right now: How to reform the $69 billion government bureaucracy that currently delivers our mail – the U.S. Postal Service.
Plagued with financial mismanagement and ever-declining volumes of first-class mail, the USPS has been in trouble for decades. It has suffered more than $100 billion in real economic losses over the past 30 years, despite its federally enforced monopoly over first-class mail, which bans letter-mailers from taking their business elsewhere.
The obvious solution is to end the Postal Service’s monopoly on letter delivery. Why not return to the days of the Pony Express and allow private companies to compete to deliver our mail?
In many industrialized nations the curtailing of postal monopolies is already underway. The Economist has reported that, free from restrictive labor laws and motivated by competition, private firms like Britain’s Business Post Group can operate at around half the cost of national posts.
This should come as no surprise. The Pony Express, a private innovator, changed the mail as it was then known.
In 1782, the Continental Congress had imposed a government monopoly on the mail. Over the years, for certain delivery routes, the government granted special licenses to private delivery companies, which then received subsidies.
Eager to keep resource-rich California in the union, Congress established a postal link to the Pacific Coast in 1847, but struggled to make it effective.
The Overland Mail Company held the contract for west coast delivery. It took up to four weeks to get the mail from Arkansas to California via El Paso, Texas and the Arizona Territory. Two things favored this tough southwestern, 2,800-mile route: It didn’t traverse any snow-bound mountains, and powerful Southern political interests thought it was the best one.
Into this scene entered the three Missouri businessmen who launched the Pony Express. Using a string of riders and horses and 157 stations across the West, the new company could complete the run between Sacramento and St. Joseph – then the western terminus of both telegraph and rail service – at an average speed of just 10 days.
The Pony Express proved to skeptics that its central route between Missouri and California was usable year round. It never won the main government contract, but the Overland Mail Company quickly copied the Pony Express, shifting away from its roundabout southern path.
With the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express was short-lived. It ended in October, 1861, and was later sold at auction. But it had taken the innovation of private entrepreneurs to prove that a shorter, faster mail route was possible.
Similarly, in recent years, the innovation of private entrepreneurs has shown us thousands of new possibilities for getting information and goods from point A to point B. Private companies have paved the way to online bill payment, fast photo transmission and overnight door-to-door delivery – with friendly customer support to boot.
But while technology has roared ahead, the ways of Washington haven’t changed. The government refuses to let go of its money-losing letter monopoly. As lawmakers debate how to reform the U.S. Postal Service, they should remember the Pony Express. It’s the private sector, not a government bureaucracy that can really deliver.
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