The Pony Express mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, was a short-lived business venture operated by the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell. The firm was well known as a freighting outfit using the central route in east-west transportation, which followed the general path of present-day Interstate 80. For freighting, the company worked under the name of Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company.
Under the leadership of William H. Russell, the Pony Express system planned to relay mail carried by horseback riders. Each rider rode from 75 to 125 miles during a day or night run. Way stations, ten to fifteen miles apart, furnished fresh horses and whatever the riders needed. There was 190 stations between Missouri and California. The system was designed so that each rider changed horses at each station until his shift or segment was covered. The cost to send a letter was five dollars per ounce. The goal of the company was to carry the mail across the country in ten days, half the time established by stagecoach. Business leaders initially expressed enthusiasm when hearing the promise of improved mail service.
The sectional competition between the central route over the southern route also was important. The southern route was favored by the southern states of the Union and by Secretary of War John B. Floyd, a southerner, who was in a position to influence the route selection. People opposed to slavery were anxious to show that some route other that the southern route was best.