“Pony Bob” Haslam, we couldn’t forget you if we tried.
Given the romance that Americans have enjoyed with the Pony Express era, you’d be forgiven for thinking those courageous riders were in the saddle for decades instead of just 18 months from April 1860 to October 1861.
Amazon lists 3,895 results for books, movies and other media with “Pony Express” in the title. A Google search instantly retrieves 4.9 million results. American history text books have traditionally reserved generous space for the exploits of Pony Express riders, who braved weather and warring Indians in an effort to move the mail from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, in a route that cut across northern Nevada.
“While the name of the Pony Express is well known to Americans, its full story is not,” Joseph J. Di Certo wrote in “The Saga of the Pony Express.”
Of the many tales from the trail recounted in shelves of books, the amazing rides across Nevada by a wiry young Englishman named Robert Haslam remain among the most remarkable feats.
Born in January 1840 in London, Haslam was known as “Pony Bob.” As a teen-ager he accompanied his family to America. Although he’s often mentioned in Pony Express histories, what remains unclear is how he gained the horsemanship it took to join the army of young riders.
The arrival of the Pony Express in Nevada coincided with increasingly heated tensions between the Northern Paiute tribe and the endless wave of settlers from the East. When the Indian war broke out, Pony Bob found himself riding right into trouble.
Haslam’s route took him from Friday’s Station at the Nevada-California border to Buckland’s Station 75 miles away near Fort Churchill, which can be found on the map today near Silver Springs in Lyon County.
The route was riddled with incidents of violence. Paiute braves commonly attacked Pony Express stations, which were spaced approximately 15 miles apart and outfitted with fresh horses.
Although he made longer rides, he once traveled 120 miles on horseback in eight hours and completed his journey despite suffering a wound from a Paiute arrow. In his pouch, which the riders called a mochila, he carried a copy of President Lincoln’s inaugural address.
Not long after, a series of tragic events manifested in Haslam riding 380 miles in just under 40 hours in the saddle without a break. After one station burned by the warring Paiute, the horses were stolen from another, and another rider refused to point his pony into hostile country, Haslam took it upon himself to keep mail moving.
Years later, Haslam recalled the feat in an understated manner.
“I was rather tired,” he said, “but the excitement of the trip had braced me up to stand the journey.”
“Pony Bob’s matter-of-fact attitude was not mere bravado; it stemmed from his extraordinary riding ability and stamina,” Di Certo wrote. “He was the natural choice to deliver crucial messages in record time.”
Haslam helped deliver news of Abraham Lincoln’s election as President, riding into Fort Churchill with shouts of “Lincoln is elected! Lincoln is elected!”
The Pony Express, which delivered letters at a rate of $1 per half ounce, lost money from the start for the Russell, Majors &Waddell freighting company. But it also made history.
The completion of the transcontinental telegraph in October 1861 spelled the end of the Pony Express, whose owners announced they were ceasing operation on Oct. 26.
But Haslam wasn’t through on horseback. He went to work for Wells, Fargo &Co. as a rider and stage driver in California, Nevada, and Idaho. In Salt Lake City, he worked as a deputy U.S. Marshall and later scouted for the U.S. Army.
His adventurous trail eventually took him to Chicago, where he spent his final years as an employee of the Hotel Congress, where a variety of sources report him entertaining guests with his adventures as a Pony Express rider.
After suffering a stroke, Haslam died in obscurity on Feb. 29, 1912 in Chicago.
Another man would have been gone and forgotten, but not Pony Bob.
His name is spoken often when the short-lived but lively history of the Pony Express is mentioned.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.