10 Things You May Not Know About the Pony Express

10 Things You May Not Know About the Pony Express

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1. The Pony Express was more than twice as fast as its competitors.

In the mid-19th century, California-bound mail had to either be taken overland by a 25-day stagecoach or spend months inside a ship during a long sea voyage. The Pony Express, meanwhile, had an average delivery time of just 10 days. To achieve this remarkable speed, company owners William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors set up a string of nearly 200 relief stations across what is now Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Lone horsemen would ride between stations at breakneck pace, switching mounts every 10-15 miles and then handing their cargo off to a new courier after 75-100 miles. The relay system allowed mail to criss-cross the frontier in record time. The company’s personal best came in March 1861, when riders carried the inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln from Nebraska to California in just seven days, 17 hours.

2. It was a financial flop.

Despite its enduring place in Old West legend, the Pony Express never turned a profit during its year and a half history. The company began making deliveries in April 1860, but service ground to a halt just a few weeks later when the Pyramid Lake War erupted between the United States and the Paiute Indians. The temporary shutdown cost the company some $75,000, and it continued to hemorrhage cash over the next few months due to high operations costs and its failure to secure a government mail contract. Though hailed in the press for its efficiency and adventurous spirit, the Pony Express eventually folded in October 1861, having lost as much as $200,000.

3. There was a weight limit for Pony Express riders.

Since speed was its main goal, the Pony Express went to great lengths to keep its horses’ loads as light as possible. Rather than burly cowboys, most of the riders were small, wiry men who weighed between 100 and 125 pounds—roughly the same size as a modern horseracing jockey. Their average age was around 20, but it wasn’t unusual for teenagers as young as 14 to be hired. One man named “Bronco” Charlie Miller claimed he was only 11 years old when he first joined the Pony Express.

4. Riders were required to take a loyalty oath.

In exchange for their $100-150 monthly salaries—a substantial sum for the time—Pony Express riders were expected to take a loyalty oath that read: “I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.” Those who broke the rules risked being dismissed without pay, but it appears that few Pony Express employees followed the pledge to the letter. Liquor flowed freely at relief stations, and an eyewitness named Richard Burton reported that he “scarcely ever saw a sober rider.”

5. Mail was carried in a specially designed saddlebag.

To cut down on weight and facilitate swift horse and rider changes, the Pony Express used a special type of mailbag known as a “mochilla”—the Spanish word for knapsack. This consisted of a leather cover that was draped over the saddle and held in place by the rider’s weight. It featured four padlocked pockets—three for mail and one for the rider’s timecard—and was capable of holding up to 20 pounds of cargo. At each relief station, riders would simply grab the mochilla off one mount and then throw it over the next, allowing them to switch horses in the span of just two minutes.

6. Ordinary people almost never used the Pony Express.

The speed of the Pony Express didn’t come cheap. In its early days the service cost $5 for every half-ounce of mail—the equivalent of some $130 today. Prices were later reduced to just $1, but they still remained too high for everyday mail. Instead, the service was mainly used to deliver newspaper reports, government dispatches and business documents, most of which were printed on tissue-thin paper to keep costs (and weight) down.

7. One rider completed a 380-mile run in less than two days.

In May 1860, Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam took off on the most legendary ride in Pony Express history. The 20-year-old was scheduled to make his usual 75-mile run from Friday’s Station east to Buckland Station in Nevada. Upon arriving at Buckland, however, he found that his relief rider was petrified of the Paiute Indians, who had been attacking stations along the route. When the other man refused to take the mail, Haslam jumped back in the saddle and rode on, eventually completing a 190-mile run before delivering his mochilla at Smith’s Creek. After a brief rest, he mounted a fresh horse and retraced his steps all the way back to Friday’s Station, at one point passing a relay outpost that had been burned by the Paiutes. By the time he finally returned to his home station, “Pony Bob” had traveled 380 miles in less than 40 hours—a Pony Express record.

8. Riders didn’t have the deadliest job on the Pony Express.

Pony Express riders had to deal with extreme weather conditions, harsh terrain and the threat of attacks by bandits and Indians, but life may have been even more dangerous for the stock keepers who manned the relief stations. Their outposts were usually crude, dirt floor hovels equipped with little more than sleeping quarters and corrals for the horses. Many were located in remote sections of the frontier, making them extremely vulnerable to ambush. Accounts differ, but Indians reportedly attacked or burned several relay stations during the Pyramid Lake War in the summer of 1860, killing as many as 16 stock hands. By contrast, only a handful of riders—six, according to the National Park Service—died in the line of duty during the entire history of the Pony Express.

9. Buffalo Bill Cody probably wasn’t a Pony Express rider.

In his autobiography, the famed frontier showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody claimed that he served as a Pony Express rider at the age of 14. He even alleged that he once rode a record 384 miles in a single run. But while Cody almost certainly worked as a messenger for the owners of the Pony Express, there is no record of him ever carrying the mail, and evidence suggests he was probably in school in Kansas during the company’s brief history. Whatever Cody’s involvement with Pony Express was, there’s no doubt that he later kept its memory alive with his famous “Wild West” vaudeville shows, which featured Pony Express riders and horse swaps as a recurring stunt from 1883 until 1916.

10. The transcontinental telegraph dealt the Pony Express its deathblow.

For all its financial troubles, the Pony Express didn’t truly collapse until a better alternative appeared on the scene. The company had spent its brief history bridging the gap between the Eastern and Western telegraph lines, but it was finally rendered obsolete on October 24, 1861, when Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City. The Pony Express ceased service just two days later. Despite operating for only 19 months, its riders had successfully delivered some 35,000 pieces of mail and traveled more than half a million miles across the American frontier.

The Pony Express

America was exploding in the mid-1800s.

From coast to coast, it was a time of great anxiety—the Civil War was looming, the Mexican War was waging, the Mormon War was simmering, gold was discovered in the hills of California and Colorado—and yet one of the most popular memories of those days is 80 skinny boys and their fast ponies.

The Pony Express is an icon of the Old West. It epitomized the “can-do” spirit that is part of the American gene pool it fed the hunger for heroic endurance it tickled the fancy of facing danger with derring-do and it spawned myths that will probably never die.

But if you were asked how long the Pony Express was the major mail carrier across the United States—19 years, 19 months, 19 days—you’d probably get it wrong.

The epithet for one of the most thrilling and colorful moments of Western history is this: April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861. Almost 19 months. From the first pony to race out of St. Joseph, Missouri, to the last pony to reach Sacramento, California—a mere 18 months, 23 days.

When the Pony Express ended, its riders had covered over 600,000 miles service had been interrupted only once and only one packet of mail was ever lost. Through heat and cold, dust and snow, blizzard and drought, the young boys on their fast ponies kept a divided nation informed and in touch at a moment of great anxiety. Some say the Pony Express helped save the Union.

And just think: Every mile was covered at a full gallop.

Tom West called them “Heroes on Horseback” in his 1969 history of the Pony Express.

“Nothing stopped these daring riders, the mail had to go through,” West wrote. “Sometimes a rider limped in with an arrow protruding from his back, as did one Mexican. Others collapsed over their ponies’ withers, drilled by a renegade bullet, as did Bob Walker. Yet their code was inflexible: the mail came first, the horse second, the rider last.”

The most spectacular example of all had to be Bob Haslam, who once rode 370 miles in 36 hours—a feat spectacular enough on its own, since the U.S. Cavalry in those days rarely covered more than 50 miles in a day. Yet Haslam made his incredible journey while pursued by Indians and suffering from two bullet wounds. The first had pierced his gun-arm, leaving it useless. The second had ripped through his cheek, knocking out a row of teeth and smashing his jawbone. Yet, nearly half-dead and badly crippled, he refused to stop riding. “The Express Company awarded Haslam $100 in recognition of his feat,” West wrote. “Bob thought it was nothing to get fussed up about. He was a Pony Express rider. Wasn’t it his job?”

The job was actually pretty simple: Get on the fastest horse money could buy, sit on a specially-designed leather pouch that held the mail—called a mochila, it would stay on the horse even if the rider couldn’t—and gallop at breakneck speed over your portion of an eight-state, 1,966-mile route. Change from one fast pony to another every 12 to 15 miles, to be sure the animals were always at optimum speed. There were only 10 days to cover the entire route, so the mochila had to travel 200 miles a day.

Hundreds of young men answered an ad that promised little but grief: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

Again and again and again, these brave boys carried on, from one relay station to the next, until the words inside the pouch—the love letters and notes of sadness and news of the emerging nation—could reach their eager readers.

That’s why there was a Pony Express in the first place—this hunger for news.

Communication was so difficult in those days, the two coasts of the nation could just as well have been on different planets. There were but two ways to get a message from the East Coast to the West: entrust it to someone on a wagon train and hope it eventually reached the intended, or send it on a ship sailing for San Francisco around Cape Horn. Either way, it was a tedious, months-long journey.

A perfect example of how slow that was is this: news that gold had been discovered in California in 1848 took almost six months to reach the Eastern states. By the time people in New York and Massachusetts were screaming “Gold in California,” many California towns were already ghost towns—long since deserted as people had rushed to Sutter’s Mill, searching for their fortune.

As West noted, “gold fever” was indeed infectious. “Everyone, it seemed, was heading for California,” he wrote. “The gold-crazed hordes came by wagon across the Great Plains, by ship around Cape Horn, by Muleback across the Isthmus of Panama. For two months, a continuous caravan of white-topped wagons, like a gigantic centipede, crept across the plains between Missouri and Fort Laramie.”

California was such a popular destination, within five years it had a half million residents.

“Soon, these adventurers began to crave one thing even more than gold,” West reported. “They wanted news from home. . . . There were no letters or newspapers, and the demand for mail service grew thunderous.”

Congress got a petition from 75,000 Californians demanding mail service. Thousands of women left back East pestered the politicians.

Pressure has always made politicians move and now they moved in a variety of ways: they tried a ship, but no sooner had the first mail vessel anchored in San Francisco Bay than her entire crew deserted for the goldfields. Congress appropriated $30,000 to have camels deliver the mail, but that didn’t work, either. Finally, it seemed clear that the only viable option was an overland route using sturdy stagecoaches.

The first, known as the “Oxbow” and run by John Butterfield, looped through the Southern states. The route was longer than the Northern immigrant route, but it avoided some tortuous mountain passes and the sub-zero winters of the Northern plains. At least, that was the public explanation for why the longer route was financed by the U.S. Government. The real reason was powerful Southern politicians kept most government subsidies on Southwestern trails, and the mail was no exception.

The first Oxbow stage left St. Louis for the West Coast on September 15, 1858. Butterfield promised mail delivery in 25 days.

“But California, now pouring millions in gold into the coffers of the East, was not satisfied,” West noted. “Senator [William] Gwin of California fought hard for a northern route. The Oxbow Route, he declared, was slow, uncertain and wasteful.”

And then, another gold rush incited the nation. “Pike’s Peak or Bust” became the new slogan as people rushed to Colorado. And with them came new complaints about the lack of mail and news. But Senator Gwin’s screams about the need for a Northern route were lost on Southern-leaning President Buchanan and his postmaster general.

As West recounted it, Senator Gwin one day got an unexpected visitor. If he hadn’t known William Russell had one of the biggest freighting outfits in the country, he would have laughed at his guest’s absurd proposition: Russell promised to take mail from East to West in 10 days. When the astonished senator asked how, Russell answered in two words: “fast ponies.”

Russell wanted a government contract Senator Gwin said Congress would have to be persuaded first Russell promised to persuade them. At that moment, he was an owner of Russell, Majors and Wadell, which was reputed to own over 6,000 freight wagons and 75,000 freight oxen and employed some 5,000 bullwhackers, blacksmiths and laborers. The company already had government contracts—one to carry mail on its stage line from Kansas to Utah, another to haul freight for the army that was fighting the Mormon Wars in Utah and Wyoming. Russell had to browbeat his partners into fronting the risky new idea, but they eventually agreed.

Here’s how they advertised the daring venture: “Mail to be rushed west by racing ponies! Butterfield Stage time cut in half! Ten days from coast to coast!”

“The news spread fast,” West recounted. “It blazed from newspaper headlines. It was discussed around potbellied stoves in frontier stores. It was hailed with joy in isolated mining camps. It stirred half a million settlers in that new empire west of the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains. Everyone assumed that the venture was government backed. But despite Senator Gwin’s fiery oratory, no government subsidy was provided. Congress was caught in the growing tension between North and South. The thorny subject of slavery threatened to split the country. Soon it was to plunge them into bitter conflict. In the event of war, the gold shipped from California would be badly needed by both sides, but the South hoped to drain gold out of California by means of Butterfield’s Southern route. For this reason, Southern congressmen blocked every effort of Northerners to subsidize a mail route across the northern plains.”

Russell and his firm pressed ahead anyway. They built 138 relay stations: “home” stations were 75 miles apart between them, smaller way stations every 15 to 20 miles held fresh mounts. The mail moved in a gigantic relay race. Riders from both ends would gallop out, change horses, continue galloping, pass the mochila off to a fresh rider after some 75 miles or so, then pick up a new mochila coming from the other direction from another rider and retrace the route.

Russell’s agents bought the best horses money could buy: Kentucky thoroughbreds for the flat prairie mustangs for the rugged Western terrain. They needed great horses for two reasons: speed and safety. The express riders were alone—they had to be able to outrun bandits and hostile Indians. While saddle horses in 1860 were going for $50, the Pony Express paid from $150 to $200 per mount.

The riders were paid $50 a month and up—good pay in those days. From the hundreds who applied, 80 were chosen—“the pick of the frontier” they were called. All were young men none weighed more than 125 pounds all had to sign this oath: “I, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”

The riders were issued bright red shirts and blue pants, although most preferred to wear range gear—a flannel shirt, vest and denim pants tucked into their riding boots. Of course, they wore wide-brimmed hats, and each was given a Colt revolver, along with a bowie knife and lightweight rifle. Many discarded the rifles to save weight. They also were given horns to signal their approach to relay stations, but few ever used them.

Riders 1,966 miles apart—one in Missouri, the other in California—began it all on April 3, 1860. The Westbound mochila arrived in Sacramento at 5:30 p.m. April 13, almost two hours early to meet the 10-day boast. It contained tissue-printed newspapers, 49 letters, five telegrams and congratulations from President Buchanan.

“William Russell and his daredevil riders had made good,” West noted. “But the critics said, ‘A publicity stunt. Bill Russell can’t keep it up.’”

But he did. For the next month, the Pony Express made good on its promise of 10-day service. And then everything stopped. A Paiute uprising destroyed scores of express stations, and for a couple of months, everything came to a halt. When the uprising was quelled, service-as-promised began again.

Perhaps the single most significant achievement of the Pony Express was keeping California in the Union. Historians note the rapid communication the mail service offered kept gold-rich California up to date about the pending Civil War. But California loyalties were still doubtful when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Californians waited with great anticipation to see what policies the new leader would outline in his inaugural address. Weeks before the inauguration, the Pony Express’ owners made elaborate preparations for speeding Lincoln’s words to California—hiring hundreds of extra men, arranging fresh relay horses every 10 miles. The planning resulted in the fastest trip ever made by the Pony Express, just seven days and 17 hours.

Californians must have liked what the president said. They also could have been swayed by the early Union victories they were reading about in newspapers rushed to them on horseback. The state and its gold stayed in the Union.

What wouldn’t stay was patience. Ten days instead of months sounded good in 1860, but instant communication via the telegraph sounded a lot better in 1861.

The Eastward construction crew of the transcontinental telegraph project arrived in Salt Lake City on October 24, 1861. Two days later, the Pony Express ceased operations.

But as grateful as everyone was for all the Pony Express had meant to the nation, Congress still stiffed Russell, Majors and Waddell. The partners had invested some $700,000 in creating the Pony Express, and would leave a $200,000 deficit when it was all over. Their company was sold at auction in 1862 to Ben Holladay, a freight business owner who would branch out into stagecoaches, steamships and railroads. He’d eventually sell it to Wells Fargo for $2 million.

It was a short run, but a run that would forever endear the Pony Express to American hearts.

Who Was The First Rider?

No less than seven riders have been named as the lad who saddled up the first Pony Express run from St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 3, 1860.

How can this be, you may wonder, if you think history is neat and tidy and the result of good record keeping. None of that was at work as this new experiment in communication began, and the very things that would make it so valuable—the pending Civil War, the gold strikes in California, the turmoil of a divided nation—are the reasons that records either weren’t kept or were shoddy. There’s also evidence that a fire destroyed the paltry records that were maintained.

So there is no accurate ledger showing the riders’ names, and that leaves us pondering “who was the first?”

According to the St. Joseph Weekly West of April 7, 1860, the first rider was “a Mr. Richardson formerly a sailor, and a man accustomed to every description of hardship. . . .”

A 1907 letter names Alex Carlisle as the first rider out of Missouri.

In 1923, the Daughters of the American Revolution put their faith in the original newspaper account in designating Williamson as the first rider when they placed a monument in Patee Park where the Pony Express Museum now stands. (The decision was so controversial, one former rider refused to attend the ceremony.)

That same year, historian Glen Bradley, who had written a book on the Pony Express, concluded Johnny Fry was the first rider.

A decade later, the St. Joseph Historical Society agreed on Fry, after determining that Billy Richardson was only 10 years old in 1860. They also relied on eyewitnesses, including:

—Fry’s sweetheart at the time, now a Mrs. Lewars, said she waved to Johnny as he rode past on the first ride.

—Two later riders both swore it was Fry.

—Historian and member of a pioneer family, Mary Alicia Owen said, “Why, everyone always knew the first rider out was Johnny Fry.”

But even that didn’t settle the argument.

In his 1959 book Pony Express—the Great Gamble, writer Roy S. Bloss noted there have been seven candidates for first rider, but “by process of literary attrition,” it came down to ‘a draw’ between Johnny Fry and William Richardson.

Tom West, in his 1969 The Story Of The Pony Express:?Heroes on Horseback, didn’t hint at any question in declaring that the Westbound rider was Bill Richardson.

As West told it, Richardson was supposed to ride out of the Patee House in St. Joseph at 5 p.m., but the mail coming in on the train from Washington was delayed. When it did arrive, he was held up even longer with speeches and congratulations—St. Joseph Mayor M. Jeff Thompson gave the inaugural speech, which was fitting since the town provided free office space for the Pony Express.

West wrote that Richardson finally swung into the saddle at 7:15 p.m. and switched mounts three times before his run was up.

But that’s not how the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph recounts the scene. The museum is so certain the first rider was Johnny Fry, its website address is [email protected] The museum says Fry mounted a horse named Sylph and galloped out of town at 7:15 p.m.

For our money, we think the final word should go to someone who knew the truth. And we’ve discovered he spoke out in 1938.

Billy Richardson had been out of St. Joseph for many years and so he had not heard of the controversy. He eventually returned to the town and died there in 1947 at age 96. His obituary stated he told this to his friends:

“A writer billed me as the first Pony Express rider but that’s not so. Johnny Fry was the first rider. It just happened that my brother, Paul Coburn, was the manager for the Pony Express here and he accidentally threw the mail pouch on my pony instead of Fry’s. We set off down the street with the ponies’ hooves clattering and my pony carrying mail. Down at the ferry, however, the mail was transferred to Fry’s mount. He was the one who deserved the credit.”

Court records show Billy Richardson was a ward of Bella Hughes, a co-director of the company that created the Pony Express, and his half brother was indeed Paul Coburn.

Pony Express – Facts You May Not Know!

When I was a kid Cowboys were king. Westerns dominated movie and television screens. Cowboys even regularly appeared in comic books. Kids loved tales of the West. There were so many heroes and we knew their names. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Bat Masterson, and Wild Bill Hickock just to name a few.

What’s interesting is that there was another group of real-life western heroes — Pony Express Riders. We all knew how they rode the mail across hostile country (weather, terrain and Indians) at breakneck speed, only stopping after they’d ridden dozens of mile and only after they had passed the mail on to the next rider.

Its interesting that what we think we knew about the Pony Express is often wrong. Evan Andrews addresses this in post 10 Things You May Not Know About the Pony Express. Before you click over, here are three of my favorites and my thoughts on each…

2. It was a financial flop. (I really never thought about the financial aspect of running the Pony Express. There’s the cost and upkeep of the horses. Paying the riders as well as those that ran the relief stations and the cost of keeping them stocked. Estimates run as high as $200,000.00 were lost for the investors behind the Pony Express. That translates to about $6.5 million today. Keep in mind the Pony Express was only in operation for about one and a half years! That is another fact that blows many people’s minds. – Craig)

8. Riders didn’t have the deadliest job on the Pony Express. (I found this to be a surprising fact. More relief station workers were killed than Pony Express Riders. The relief stations were in remote locations and vulnerable to attacks by bandits and Indians at war. – Craig)

7. One rider completed a 380-mile run in less than two days. (Most Pony Express riders rode about 75 miles making horse changes along the way. They would they pass off the mail and rest up for their next trip. Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam had ridden his route but the next rider refused to take the mail on. Paiute Indians had been attacking relief stations and the rider was afraid to head into their territory. Haslam grabbed the mail, jumped on a fresh mount and completed the run! After delivering the mail and a brief rest, Haslam completed the return trip, a total of 380 miles in less than 40 hours! – Craig)

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The company’s original logo was a watchdog.

The reason for the watchdog was that it stood for the company values, which included trust, security, service, and vigilance. The original watchdog was depicted in a photo, lying on top of an American Express shipping trunk, and the American Pit Bull Terrier had the letters “AM. EX. CO.” inked onto its white fur coat. At the company’s original location on Lower Hudson Street in Tribeca, New York, the American Pit Bull Terrier is sculpted in bas relief in the center of the American Express name which circles around the dog’s head. A heavy-duty collar with large spike-like cubes surrounds the dog’s neck-adding to the certainty that he will guard his shipments to the fullest. The dog logo is nestled into the brick façade of the building several stories above street level, and though AmEx no longer occupies the building, visitors can still see the old logo.

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A little-known fact about Twilight is that she was personally chosen by Princess Celestia to be her apprentice after she saw Twilight's potential for powerful magic when Twilight used her magic to hatch Spike's egg and earn her cutie mark.


On # ThisDayInHistory in 1860, the first Pony Express mail, traveling by horse and rider relay teams, simultaneously left Missouri and California. Although ultimately short-lived and unprofitable, the Pony Express captivated America’s imagination, and likely helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War. https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-pony-express


10 Things You May Not Know About the Pony Express

The Pony Express was a mail service delivering messages, newspapers, and mail using relays of horse-mounted riders that operated from April 3, 1860, to October 24, 1861. 1

Normally the mail was sent via steamer from Sacramento down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. When the steamer was missed, riders took the mail via horseback to Oakland. The Pony Express Ferry "Oakland" Marker was dedicated on April 23, 1999 in Jack London Square at the transfer point of the Pony Express route between Oakland and San Francisco.

5. It&rsquos the ancestral home of Patron St Colmcille, the Pride of Donegal

Enjoying the view in west Donegal near Glencolmcille

The pride of Donegal, St Colmcille (or St Columba, meaning ‘dove’) is one of Ireland’s three patron saints (alongside famous St Patrick, as well as St Brigit), and is credited with spreading Christianity to Scotland. Born and bred in the heart of Donegal, he descended from the famed Niall of the Nine Hostages, a 5th century Irish high king. St Colmcille started his first monastery in Donegal (he went on to found 30 of them, including the famous Abbey of Iona in Scotland), and it is said he was much inspired by Donegal’s rough and wild landscapes. St Colmcille is still widely revered in Donegal to this day.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Michael Shannon

With critical acclaim for his portrayal of the fish man’s nemesis in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water and his current turn as a lawman butting heads with David Koresh in the Paramount Network’s Waco, people are increasingly waking up to the fact that Michael Shannon is a national treasure. With his sharply-etched face and looming frame, Shannon’s formidable screen presence tends to elevate whatever project he’s involved with. (The 2017 Bigfoot holiday comedy Pottersville is one possible exception.) Here are 10 things you might not have known about the actor.


Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Shannon got his start as a theater performer and often appears in stage plays between film roles. While appearing on Broadway in 2012 for a play titled Grace, Shannon told the Chicago Tribune that he began to grow irritated when an obvious commotion in the audience broke his concentration. Believing someone might have been drunk, he complained to the stage manager afterwards. The man informed that him someone in the balcony had vomited into the orchestra section, causing widespread panic. In retrospect, Shannon admitted the crowd was “pretty restrained” in their reaction.


Migrating from his native Kentucky, Shannon performed theater work in Chicago before trying his luck in Hollywood. His first role was opposite Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day, where Murray’s character gifts him with tickets to WrestleMania. Shannon was just 18 years old at the time.


Mike Coppola, Getty Images

One of Shannon’s highest-profile roles to date was the Kryptonian supervillain General Zod in 2013’s Man of Steel. While he did not reprise the role for 2016’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, that did not stop one enterprising reporter from asking if he was picking sides in the fictional superhero faceoff. After explaining that he fell asleep while trying to watch the movie on a plane, he told Vulture that he was “profoundly, utterly unconcerned” with who would win.

“I can’t even come up with a fake answer,” he said. ”I guess I have to root for Superman because he killed me, so I would hope that he would continue his killing spree and become like a serial killer Superman. That’s a new take on Superman. We’d all be in a heap of trouble if Superman was a serial killer. He could just wipe us all out. But then he’d be lonely.”


With his dry sense of humor, Shannon’s offscreen persona can sometimes have people doubting whether he’d make for a good late-night talk show guest. In 2013, he told The New York Times that his aloof disposition may have cost him an appearance on David Letterman, an invitation he had been coveting since he was a teenager. “How many movies do you gotta do to get on David Letterman?” he asked. “All I’ve wanted since I was 15 freaking years old was to be on David Letterman. I mean, I’m in Man of Steel. I think they all think I’ll be violent.”

Following this interview, Shannon was booked to appear on Letterman's show. No one was harmed.



Playing General Zod afforded Shannon the opportunity to have his likeness etched into toy form, from action figures to elaborate and expensive collector's items. Asked whether his young daughter thought that was interesting, Shannon told the The A.V. Club that a diminutive version of her father held little intrigue. “I can’t say she, personally, is terribly interested in them,” he said. “She’s more into the My Little Pony and Tinkerbell thing.”


Jonathan Leibson, Getty Images

Do not expect Michael Shannon to retweet a particularly poignant cat or dog video. In 2012, he told The A.V. Club that social media is not part of his routine. “I don’t do any of that social media stuff. I have people telling me all the time, ‘You should do Twitter, you should do this, you should get on Facebook.’ Are you insane? I’m not doing any of that crap. I stay the hell off that thing. Every once in a while, I send a business email, and that’s it.”


Mike Coppola, Getty Images

Shannon was invited to read the audiobook for playwright and actor Sam Shepard’s final book, Spy of the First Person. While he felt honored to be asked to be a voice for the late author, Shannon told the Chicago Tribune that voiceover work was not without its hazards. “I spent a lot of time trying to breathe quietly, and dealing with stomach noise,” he said.” They had a little bowl of breakfast bars in the recording studio, and the producer at one point says to me, ‘You should eat one of the breakfast bars.’ And I said, ‘Nah, I don’t like breakfast bars.’ So he says, ‘Well, put a pillow over your stomach, then.’”


Shannon’s acting chops are not in question, but not many people know he’s prepared to rock out when the moment presents itself. He formed the rock band Corporal in 2002 and released an album in 2010. For a tribute concert in January 2018 dedicated to the late David Bowie, Shannon threw away his shirt and got on stage to channel Iggy Pop and perform “Lust for Life.”


Roy Rochlin, Getty Images

With his intense stare and brooding demeanor, Shannon is often invited to portray characters that descend into either lawlessness or outright madness. For the Paramount Network’s Waco, he’s a federal agent trying to outmaneuver religious cult leader David Koresh. As soon as people heard “Waco,” however, they assumed he’d be playing the unhinged one.

"I actually got mad at [film director] Ethan Coen,” he told GQ. “I was on an airplane and Ethan was sitting behind me. He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘I’m shooting Waco.’ And he’s like, ‘And playing Koresh?’ I’m like, ‘Damn! Why does everybody always ask me if I’m playing Koresh?’ I forgot for a second I was talking to Ethan Coen. I really kind of regretted it afterwards. I should have stifled my irritation.”


Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

On the set of The Shape of Water, Shannon’s penchant for getting things right in a single take did not go unnoticed by the rest of the cast. Speaking with The Verge, Shannon said that his last name became a verb that denotes excellence in performing. “Octavia [Spencer] came up with this term on set, ‘Shannoning,’ where you get something right in one take,” he said. “Every once in a while, after one take, Guillermo would be like ‘That’s perfect!’ and Octavia would say, ‘I Shannoned it!’”

10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Wells Fargo

When Wells Fargo was founded in 1852, bank branches were less important than stagecoaches. Image credit: iStock/Thinkstock.

I recently happened upon a book written in 1949 on the history of Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) . The book, Wells Fargo: Advancing the American Frontier by Edward Hungerford, offers a fascinating view into the early years of what is today one of the best-run banks in the world. What follows are 10 interesting insights from the book.

1. Wells Fargo wasn't a bank at first
Banking was originally of secondary importance to Wells Fargo. The company was founded in 1852 to provide delivery services to people in California during the Gold Rush. After acquiring multiple stagecoach lines, it "owned the greatest staging empire in the world." It even purchased what remained of the Pony Express, which operated between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California for 18 months before the transcontinental telegraph line rendered it obsolete in 1861.

2. The Fat Cat of Montgomery Street
The high profits and lucrative dividend payments from Wells Fargo's express operations earned it the nickname: the Fat Cat of Montgomery Street -- San Francisco's equivalent of Wall Street.

3. Surviving the Panic of 1855
The first of many financial panics that Wells Fargo survived took place in 1855, when a drought made it impossible to mine for gold along stream beds. The panic caused nearly 200 businesses in San Francisco to fail, including Wells Fargo's biggest competitor, Adams Express Company. "As the only major express company surviving the crash, Wells Fargo could look forward to prosperous days ahead," wrote Hungerford. Wells Fargo's financial position was so strong that it didn't even suspend its dividend that year.

4. The first serious threat to Wells Fargo
In the first half of the 1860s, Wells Fargo acquired virtually all the stage lines from the Missouri River to California, which gave it a monopoly on transcontinental delivery services. It then abruptly changed course in 1868. After realizing that the transcontinental railroad was nearing completion, Wells Fargo's board of directors ordered its president to sell off all of the company's stage lines.

5. The hostile takeover of Wells Fargo in 1869
When Wells Fargo's stock plummeted as a result of the threat from the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869, a group of California-based investors acquired control of the company. It was at that point that Wells Fargo moved its headquarters from New York City to San Francisco. Because these same investors controlled the Central Pacific railroad, Wells Fargo gained exclusive express privileges on the only train that connected California to the East Coast.

The "Treaty of Omaha," which marked the transfer of control over Wells Fargo, revitalized the company. "Considering the fact that Wells Fargo was the only company that could transport express in California on the [Central and Southern Pacific railroads] it fixed its rates high," wrote Hungerford. "And the profits . were good."

6. Holdups and robberies
Holdups and robberies were a major threat to Wells Fargo in its early years. By 1884, its stagecoaches and trains had been robbed 340 times, leading to the deaths of 16 robbers (not including 7 hanged by citizens) and six Wells Fargo employees. The company hired its own security force to combat the threat. "For forty years it had been said throughout the West that there were two institutions dangerous for bad men to tinker with," said Hungerford. "One was the Federal Government and the other, Wells Fargo."

7. Well Fargo's worst acquisition
In the mid-1890s, Wells Fargo purchased Commercial National Bank, a Portland, Oregon-based bank that "had had a hard time of it in the great panic of 1893." While Wells Fargo was flush with capital at the time -- "panics were hardly more than incidents" to the company, wrote Hungerford -- Commercial National's bad loans were worse than expected. As Wells Fargo's president at the time recounted:

I listened to what those people said and I passed on a lot of assets that never should have been passed. The reason that I made that kind of error was that I laid too much stress on their good faith. I didn't allow for the fact that a man of good faith might lack something of good judgment.

Wells Fargo lost its entire investment in Commercial National and subsequently sold it in 1905 to United States National Bank, which had "long since become an outstanding bank of Portland." That bank today is U.S. Bancorp.

8. The spinoff of Wells Fargo Bank in 1905
In 1901, famed railroad financier Edward H. Harriman gained control of the Southern Pacific railroad, which, in turn, owned a substantial share of Wells Fargo stock stemming from previous dealings between the companies. Harriman saw little value in Wells Fargo's banking operations, which were ancillary to its express service. He accordingly decided to spinoff Wells Fargo Bank in 1905.

The bank was purchased by Isaias Hellman, president of the Nevada Bank of San Francisco, which had $9 million in deposits at the time compared to Wells Fargo's $6 million. "Yet to throw away the name of Wells Fargo with all its vast prestige was unthinkable," wrote Hungerford. The combined bank thus went by the name of Wells Fargo-Nevada National Bank.

The Wells Fargo Bank of New York was sold around the same time to the National Park Bank, which later merged into Chase National Bank -- what is today JPMorgan Chase.

9. The San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906
For multiple days after the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed three-quarters of San Francisco, Wells Fargo operated without records of its customers' accounts, which were then trapped in the fireproof vault in its still smoldering headquarters building. But even though it paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to depositors based entirely on their integrity, its total loss from overpayments didn't exceed $200.

10. The end of Wells Fargo Express in 1918
Wells Fargo's express service officially ended in 1918. At the behest of the Secretary of the Treasury, the three big express companies in the country were merged into the American Railway Express "in the interests of winning" World War I.

There was much bitterness. Once the new combination had been made, the Wells Fargo signs and insignia were torn down all the way across the land to be replaced immediately by the signs and insignia of the American Railway Express. Wells Fargo disappeared from the telephone listings everywhere the name was apparently never even to be whispered.

The same is not true, of course, of Wells Fargo's once cast aside bank. In the financial crisis of 2008-09, it proved yet again that it's one of the safest and most prudent stewards of capital in America. As Hungerford observed six decades before the crisis, "From its beginnings nearly 100 years ago down to the present, not one person ever lost a dollar, in property or in money entrusted to the care of Wells Fargo."

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