U.S. Mail: Ponies to Planes
Special to the Sun
The legendary Pony Express operated for less than 19 months (1860-1861), quickly replaced by a stagecoach line and transcontinental telegraph. But the brave young men who spurred foam-flecked horses across rugged mountains and waterless deserts to deliver the U.S. mail made history.
The new overland telegraph could send short messages long distances quickly, but it was expensive and handwritten letters were still the standard method for communicating. A transportation breakthrough came in 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad was completed across the United States. Before the Iron Horse, many California-bound immigrants traveled in covered wagons, a dangerous and arduous trek. Once the railroad was completed, however, passengers could travel coast to coast in safety and relative luxury through stormy weather, enjoying food and wine while gazing at the passing scenery.
Despite the development of railroad lines in the United States, efficient and easy travel in the Sierra was still a challenge even after 1900. In December 1903, newspaper headlines reported the Wright brothersand#8217; first successful flight in a powered airplane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. However, years would go by before anyone in Truckee or rural Nevada would see a plane, since early aircraft were incapable of flying over the Sierra.
In April 1916, a New York millionaire attempted a transcontinental flight from San Diego to New York, transiting through Las Vegas. He crashed 125 miles into his flight, but the effort was front-page news in Nevada. Initially air travel was too expensive and complex for individual entrepreneurs. As with railroad and highway transportation, it would take the power and resources of the federal government to develop. During World War I, primitive biplanes made of wood and canvas with top speeds of 100 mph were outfitted with machine guns and converted into offensive weapons. The adaptation of the airplane as a military weapon rapidly accelerated their technological development.
In 1919, three U.S. Army planes with 90 horsepower engines successfully crossed the Sierra from Sacramento over Donner Pass to Reno. Once the air route between Reno and San Francisco was established, flights over the Sierra became almost routine. The successful flights over the Sierra near Donner Pass opened the door to aviationand#8217;s first practical use: Airmail. Western bankers and business leaders wanted the eastern network linked to the western states, in part to help reduce the float time of checks moving across the country. Postal officials laid out a transcontinental airmail route and on Sept. 8, 1920, the first West Coast-bound airmail plane took off from New Jersey. Pilots relayed the 400 pounds of mail to each other much like a hi-tech version of the earlier Pony Express mail delivery system. Planes could not fly at night, but the mail still arrived in San Francisco in four days.
Flying over the Great Basin was one of the most treacherous portions of the journey. Vast expanses of alkali desert, severe storms and isolated settlements made the flight over Utah and Nevada especially daunting. Without location transmitters or radios, it was nearly impossible to find a pilot who crashed landed in the vast expanse of Nevada. To give themselves a chance, pilots followed the tracks of the transcontinental railroad and the Lincoln Highway. Despite the obstacles, airmail pilots in the West developed a fairly safe operation and during the first three years only seven pilots died in the western sector, a rate comparable to other sectors of the country.
and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at email@example.com
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