For the last several years, we’ve gone to suburban Kansas City to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my brother Bruce and sister-in-law Lynn. While there, in addition to loads of food and fellowship, we also have fun and educational excursions planned by Lynn, a retired teacher and history buff.
Her well-planned agendas over the years have included a top-to-bottom guided tour of Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, that included visits to the locker room, a walk on the turf, and a visit to the press box from which the network sportscasters broadcast the games; a visit to historic Union Station downtown; an excursion to Fort Scott which played a role in patrolling the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War; and a trip to Topeka, the state’s capital city with the schoolhouse turned into a museum that chronicles the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education school desegregation case.
And yes, we also managed to sandwich in a trip to The Flea — the Westport Flea Market Bar and Grill which touts the best burger in Kansas City. Plus, over the years we’ve sampled the fare at myriad locally owned breakfast places. My new favorite breakfast spot is the one where the server plunks down a tray of warm house-made cinnamon rolls right after your coffee lands on the table and before you order your breakfast. Kansas City barbecue is a topic covered by countless food critics and writers of every stripe, so no need to do so in this space.
This year’s feature excursion went lighter on the food and heavier on the history, which was appropriate given the Thanksgiving Day feast a day earlier at the Kansas Holmes’ house.
First stop on this year’s foray into Midwest history, the James Farm at Kearney, Mo., birthplace of none other than the outlaw Jesse James. Jesse and older brother Frank were among the most notorious and perhaps most romanticized Confederate bushwhackers turned outlaws, bank and train robbers and murderers ever. Ironically, Jesse James was murdered by a newly recruited gang associate in 1882. Six months later, Frank surrendered to the governor of Missouri and was subsequently tried and acquitted for two murders that occurred during robberies.
The final stop on this year’s excursion — the museum that chronicles perhaps the briefest, but most legendary effort to tie California to the rest of the country. Maybe, some folks would suggest today, we shouldn’t have tried so hard.
But in 1860, the nation was on the brink of Civil War and there was no way for people to communicate quickly and efficiently across from the middle of America to the West Coast.
Out of that need for communication, the Pony Express was born. The National Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, Mo., provides a look at that period of history and the entrepreneurs who formed a company that contracted with the government to provide fast mail service between St. Joe and Sacramento, Calif.
Virtually everyone in the United States, it seems, learned about the Pony Express and its impact on the history of the United States. Had I been asked before that visit to the museum, I would have guessed that the Pony Express lasted at least a decade based on all the attention it got in school and its place in national history. I expect you have a guess about its tenure along those same lines as mine.
The Pony Express operated only 18 months before going bankrupt, in essence replaced by technology. It was launched to great fanfare and excitement, with the first rider leaving the stable that is the present-day museum on April 3, 1860.
The concept was that of a service that would use diminutive riders and fast horses to carry mail and documents swiftly back and forth across the 2,000 miles of rugged terrain that separated St. Joseph and Sacramento. One of the founders called the Pony Express the precursor to a transcontinental railroad.
During its 18 months of operation, the Pony Express reduced the time for messages to travel between the east and west U.S. coast to about 10 days. It became the west’s most direct means of east-west communication before the first transcontinental telegraph was established on Oct, 24, 1861, and was vital for tying the new state of California with the rest of the United States.
Despite a heavy subsidy, the Pony Express was a financial failure. It grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. It failed to capture the exclusive government contract it sought, and its cost of service was significantly above that of the Post Office.
Despite its brief tenure, the operation cemented its place in U.S. history as well as literature and films romanticizing the tough, young riders who proved what was believed impossible could be done.
During our visit to the museum, several thoughts occurred to me. First, entrepreneurs are willing to invest their time and risk their money in something they believe represents a faster, more efficient way to accomplish a goal. Second, just because something represents a new and different way of conducting business, it may not succeed.
Also, it became clear that change is the only constant, not only in our society generally but in the communication field. After the telegraph came the telephone, computers, and then the Internet. Communication, or miscommunication, happens now at the speed of light.
The Pony Express, long gone but not forgotten, was established to tie one part of the United States with another. Despite having progressed from horseback to the Internet, I wonder if we’re less united now than we were then.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.