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Slow Connection

Baltimore Author Christopher Corbett Separates the Facts from the Fables in the History of a Low-Tech Enterprise

Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express

Author:Christopher Corbett
Publisher:Broadway
Genre:Non-Fiction

By Scott Carlson | Posted 10/8/2003

Although Orphans Preferred is set around the time of the Civil War, the story's details would be right at home in the America of Bush II. Here we have a group of cutthroat businessmen--like Ken Lay and Co. --who are up to their ears in debt, running a famous and speculative business that extends from Missouri to California, and in legend extends even wider. These men will eventually be outrageously bankrupt, leaving their employees short on pay. The business here is a much-lauded high-speed communication network that is expensive to run, long on publicity, and short on practicality--but it's not a dot-com.

The business was the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Co., known by everyone as simply the Pony Express. Although the Pony Express is legendary in America, Baltimore author Christopher Corbett points out that legend rarely represents accurate history, and that's especially true here. Legend might have one believe that the Pony Express ran for decades and was a great enterprise. It was, in fact, a colossal business failure that ran for a mere 18 months--instantly killed by the erection of telegraph lines. But Buffalo Bill, Hollywood, drunken pulp novelists, and other fabulists have had their way with the story of the Pony--so much so, Corbett points out early in the book, that it's difficult for a historian to discern fact from fiction in the record.

What results in Orphans Preferred is a wide-ranging history cobbled together from known facts and conjecture, always written in energetic prose. Corbett, a journalism lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, seems to take inspiration and facts from the records in Western newspapers and the works of traveling reporters, like Horace Greeley. Even the title of the book comes from a legendary--and unverified--employment ad placed in a California newspaper, which sought "expert riders, willing to risk death daily."

That title seems to set up an exciting ride, but readers who come to Orphans Preferred only for a galloping tale of death-defying, Indian-fleeing, long-distance horse riders will be satisfied with merely a chapter here and a section there. In these sections, with little verifiable information available, Corbett colorfully illustrates the very hard life of these young, wiry men, who could ride hundreds of miles in a day. Some rode so hard, he writes, that they bled from their noses and mouths. If a rider was thrown from his horse, he was expected to walk to the next station, which could be many miles away, even across desert. More than one observer considered the riders' half-wild steeds to be the brood of Satan. A horse was considered suitable for riding, one Pony Express station master observed, if "a rider could lead it out of the stable without getting his head kicked off."

But the bulk of Orphans Preferred is more of a panoramic history of the nascent West, which loses some steam in the last half, as Corbett discusses the ways that the Pony Express lived on in fable. But some of the most interesting portions of this tale have little to do with hard, fast riding. We learn, for example, about how hard life in the West was--most entertainingly through a chapter on British writer/explorer/polymath Sir Richard Burton, who travels through the Pony Express stops and bitches endlessly about the accommodations. We learn, too, about how the legends of the West were inflated by showmen like Buffalo Bill and others.

And in an age of easy interconnectivity, we learn how valuable fresh information and correspondence were to miners and other settlers in the West, who were cut off from the heart of the country in the East. They paid the pony riders $5 for a lightweight piece of paper. Miners would pay an ounce of gold--equal to $300 in today's money--for a letter, and as much as $150 for an old newspaper. Given this rabid thirst for news, correspondence, and stories, it's little wonder how the hard-riding Pony Express created news and stories all on its own.

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