Photos by John O’Hara
The rugged and dusty mountain endurance race now known as the Tevis Cup Ride was born as an effort to resuscitate an Old West legend: the Pony Express.
That’s why a prized silver belt buckle Tevis riders attain for finishing this modern event shows the emblem of a mounted, galloping wilderness mailman, as well as an embossed legend, “100 miles — one day.”
It began because an Auburn-area lumberman, banker and backcountry adventurer, Wendell Robie, was enamored of pioneer history. On an annual series of three-day rides over the Lake Ta-hoe-to-Auburn mountain trail in the 1950s – along an old Gold Rush path called Scott’s Route – Robie would chat with fellow riders about the bygone exploits of the Pony Express. While others scoffed, Robie asserted modern people and their mounts could in-deed prove equal to those legendary rough riders.
It was an ambitious bill to fill. Young Pony Express riders were light (125 pounds or less) and lithe, but tough as nails. Mounted primarily on muscular Morgans and iron-sinewed mustangs, these wilderness mailmen could travel 75 to 100 miles per shift, changing to a fresh horse five to eight times over the course of a ride, in order to keep an average 10 mph pace.
“Pony Bob” Haslam was famous for once covering 370 miles with-out stopping.
At a series of about 170 way stations – many of these were little more than dank sod dugouts or rickety huts – the rider would vault off with a mochila (leather saddle cover holding four pouches of mail and a waybill), plop it over another saddle, re-mount, then gallop off.
Originally, a rider was heavily armed to defend against robbers or Indian attacks. Weapons included a Sharps or Spencer carbine rifle strapped to his back, a pair of six-shooters at his belt (usually model 1851 Navy Colts) and a Bowie knife or dagger. However, it was soon realized, a rider’s best defense was pure mobility and speed, so that arsenal was lightened to a single pistol and knife.
Far more stations were at-tacked than riders, particularly during an uprising by Paiutes. Just one rider was known to be slain by Indians; but there are many stories of swift chases and hair’s-breadth escapes.
Even the mail itself was whittled down for speed. Most of it consisted of tissue-paper letters sheathed in envelopes of oiled silk. At the beginning, it cost $5 to mail a half-ounce — about $75 in today’s money. Government dis-patches were charged 27 times that rate.
In return for this hefty stamp fee, senders got to ship missives from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento — 1,966 miles — in about 10.5 days. This was considerably faster than the southern Butterfield stagecoach route. The swiftest transit ever occurred in March 1861. A copy of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address made it to the West Coast in seven days, 17 hours. At Sacramento, mail was shifted to packet steamer for the final leg to 617 Market St. in San Francisco, office of Central Over-land California and Pike’s Peak Express Co. (COC&PP), parent firm of the Pony Express.
In a modern hunt for old-time virtues, on Aug. 7, 1955, four other riders met Wendell Robie at the Tahoe City post office. Besides invoking the pioneer past, they sought to prove that people and horses had not been bled of the moxie of earlier generations.
Robie’s retracing of Scott’s Route, in fact, did ramble miles to the north of the original Pony Express line-of-travel. Express riders had followed the course of present-day Highway 50, over the 7,382 foot-high pass of Echo Summit, then descended along the South Fork American River, past the hamlet of Strawberry, a way station.
But Robie’s trail did penetrate still-rugged and forested wilderness, cresting the Emigrant Pass at 8,800 feet, then descended into watersheds of the Middle Fork and North Fork of the American River. In memory of the Old West riders, Robie marked his trail in yellow tape, symbolizing a yellow stripe on the trousers of the U.S. Cavalry. In addition, each inaugural rider on what later became known as the Tevis Cup Ride carried a piece of mail to be canceled in Auburn. That tradition would be maintained for the first six years of an increasingly popular test of equine endurance and human skill.
Interestingly, the Tevis Cup Ride has proven to be a greater success and shown much longer “legs” than the pioneer enterprise on which it was modeled.
The Pony Express lasted only about 18 months, from April 1860 to November 1861. It carried 35,000 letters, and did prove the nation’s central route could be used year-round. But it never turned a profit and was a bit of a fiscal disaster. COC&PP came to stand for “Clean Out of Cash and Pay Poor.” The final nail in the Pony Express coffin was a new, transcontinental telegraph link, established on Oct. 24, 1861.
However, the commemorative Tevis event has just celebrated its 50th run, and seems to be going strong. The world’s first and most famous organized endurance ride regularly attracts its limit of 250 riders, and then adds many more to a waiting list. (The number is limited because only a special U.S. Forest Service rule variance allows this ride to proceed through the Granite Chief Wilderness.) In final weeks before this year’s ride, more than 180 riders dallied on the waiting list, hoping against hope that another rider’s misfortune might turn to their good luck and give them a chance to prove their mettle in the mountains.
Robie rode his event 13 times before he died at the age of 89 in 1984, 10 years after he earned his last Tevis buckle. Many people who still ride this event remember the charismatic yet cantankerous founder well.
“Wendell was always on the hunt for a crisis,” says Julie Suhr, one of the few riders out there with more Tevis buckles than Robie. “If he couldn’t find one, he’d create one, just so he’d have some-thing he could triumph over.”
But on the topic of the toughness of horses and riders, Robie did live long enough to enjoy one of his favorite situations: He saw himself proved absolutely right. The sport of endurance riding has spread across the globe, spawning a proliferation of 50-mile rides, more 100-mile rides on easier terrain (the Tevis remains the toughest century) and even 250-mile, multi-day events.
“Riders around the world owe a huge debt to him,” Suhr says. “He brought an ancient pursuit to life. Riders from 63 nations participate in endurance world champion-ships nowadays.”