Unearthing Pony Express Route History at Sand Springs Station
ADVENTURER | GREG MCFARLANE
No American institution that lasted a mere year and a half—not Zachary Taylor’s presidency, the Tennessee Oilers, nor the “Da Ali G Show”—is remembered as nostalgically as the Pony Express. The revolutionary mail delivery service, which began in April 1860, was defunct by the fall of 1861.
When the Pony Express debuted, a series of courageous riders and horses was heralded as the fastest way to deliver mail from San Francisco to St. Joseph, Missouri: the journey took 10 days. The following year, the transcontinental telegraph rendered the Pony Express obsolete. Though the Pony Express route crossed such obstacles as the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, the stretch through the Great Basin was as inhospitable as any. The terrain was mostly flat, but the punishing heat and lack of water on the Nevada leg made the trek arduous for both carrier and mount.
Of the 43 Pony Express stations in Nevada, most have disappeared without a trace, existing only in ledger books and maps of the time. Buckland Station is one of the few that survive. Forty-five miles east lies another, at one of the route’s most desolate points. Riders were never so thankful to find respite than at Sand Springs Station, at the edge of Fourmile Flat just outside Fallon.
Located within a mile of the Loneliest Road in America, the few remains of the station are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located on the heels of ancient Lake Lahontan—a glacial lake that covered most of northern Nevada thousands of years ago—the Sand Mountain that remains has moved and changed over time. Today, it's about a mile from the present Sand Springs Station historic site, but within recent decades completely covered this Pony Express Station. Having been rediscovered within recent history, not much more exists today than during its heyday. The “building”—really just volcanic rocks arranged in the form of a foundation—contained a stable, a tack and storage shed, a telegraph room, a kitchen that doubled as a blacksmith room, a corral, and a tiny living room.
Sir Richard Burton, the legendary English explorer who’d witnessed horrors and destruction throughout four continents, saved some of his most vivid prose for Sand Springs: “The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts…filthy and squalid.” As for the riders themselves, they were all “cretins, except one who lay on the ground crippled and dying.” This description from a man who’d spent the previous decade fighting natives in India and tropical diseases in Tanganyika.
The way to Sand Springs Station’s remnants is clearly marked, but most visitors drive by without a glance. Instead they’re en route to the area’s featured attraction, nearby Sand Mountain. A 600-foot-high wall of silica, the mountain is renowned as a playground for off-highway vehicles. If you’re in the neighborhood, whether towing a dune buggy or just passing through, the detour is well worth worth it, and probably not that much different than when the ponies were running, more than 150 years ago. #NVHistory