Lewis & Clark weren’t the only westbound trailblazers. More than half a century after their return from the Pacific, it still took weeks for news to travel from one coast to another. This situation was far from ideal on the eve of civil war and the US government sought a solution. Step forward the Pony Express. Not just a bit of Americana on a belt buckle, but a 1900 mile route across the plains, deserts and mountains that stood between St Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.
The Pony Express Museum in St Joe (as locals abbreviate it) tells the story admirably, explaining how letters could now be carried in around 10 days between the two coasts thanks to a chain of riders and a network of “stations” that looked after the horses and managed the logistics. Despite its fame, the service ran for only 18 months as it was superceded by the telegraph. And that was that. One rider, William Cody, went on to find fame as Buffalo Bill, while the Pony Express headquarters reverted to a hotel, accommodating the family of Jesse James after he was shot in the house next door 20 years later.
Clearly eager to live up to the reputation of the town as the purveyor of news, the girl at the cash desk eagerly read out the local headlines for me in order to bring me up to speed with Tornado Watch. I’d been hearing on the radio that Kansas City, which I’d skirted round earlier, was on alert and St Joe was on the edge of the area. I got a full description of what it felt like when a tornado was coming, so returned to the Bed & Breakfast partly amused and partly terrified. There was no tornado.
What a maelstrom would make of some of St Joe’s older properties I’m not sure. The “hill” part of town, where I was staying, is a series of blocks comprising some amazing looking large houses. Some are beautiful and lived in. Some, very run down – but still lived in. Others are clearly empty and in need of a large dose of loving restoration. Or perhaps to be hit by a tornado.
St Joe has the air of a town that’s seen good days and bad. It’s never had any industry to speak of – it was a true frontier town: the end of the train line west until after the Civil War. Prosperity came from trade. But as the railway tracks were laid further west and stockyards dwindled, fewer and fewer people needed St Joe.
There’s still a frontier town feel to it; a sense that if you could just find the right business opportunity maybe you could make it big. One couple giving it a go are Nathan and Patty who opened Foster’s Martini & Wine Bar a few years back. They’re lovely people and Patty was very excited that they might get a mention in a blog. So here’s the mention (and thanks for the T-shirt!). If you’re in town, then check them out – they have good taste in music too.