Pony Express Stations, Part 8: The Northern Route (Stillwater Dogleg)

Beyond Fort Churchill and Buckland’s Station through the area now known as Churchill County, the history of the Pony Express Stations becomes a confusing mess. Captain James H. Simpson blazed a trail across central Nevada that roughly follows U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada and Utah in 1859 and 1860. This became known as the Simpson Route or the Central Nevada Route.

This Central Route reduced the distance across Nevada compared to the Humboldt River Trail by 280 miles. As Simpson staked out the trail, the U.S. Army improved the trail and cleaned out the springs for stagecoaches and wagons. This immediately became the preferred route for stagecoach travel and overland mail service. In the spring of 1860, the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, parent company of the Pony Express, decided upon the Simpson Route for the Pony Express.

They sent out wagon trains with building materials and supplies to construct the needed relay stations along the entire route between St. Joseph and Sacramento. Work crews located and built the stations along the route spaced at distances that would allow changing horses every 10-12 miles depending on the terrain with “home” stations every 75 to 100 miles apart so the riders could rest. There were an estimated 119 to 153 stations constructed along the route with stations being added or subtracted several times during the lifetime of the operation.

According to the National Park Service, today most of the original trail is gone. Along many segments, the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture. Modern off road travel, highway construction, and private working ranches have obliterated much of the route and some of the stations.

We do know that the Pony Express ran through what is now Churchill County Nevada during its brief existence of just 18 months between April 1860 and October, 1861. The original stations constructed by C.O.C. & P.P. Express were used from April 3, 1860 until May 12, 1860 when the Pyramid Lake Indian battles started. These stations followed what has become known as the Southern Route through Churchill County. For the next few months, the pony runs were disrupted by sporadic Indian attacks. Some of the stations were burned or damaged and a safer route was selected further north until hostilities subsided.

The original stations of the Southern Route included Buckland’s Station, Desert/Hooten Wells Station, possibly Williams Station, Carson Sink Station and Sand Springs Station. The trail for these stations went 2 miles south of Buckland’s across the bridge over the Carson River, then 12 miles east to Hooten Wells and on to the others. Ruins of some of these stations still exist and we will describe them in future articles. The important thing to remember about these stations is that they were not used during the full 18 months of the existence of the Pony Express.

When a safer route was selected due to the Indian hostilities along the Southern Route, the newer Northern Route was established and used during the final seven to eight months of the Pony Express. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company took over this section of the route and the pony riders simply started using this safer route. Several stations were established but there are no ruins still in existence nor can the route of the trail be determined with any accuracy. It crossed the Carson Sink and became known as the Stillwater Dogleg.

Historians are not in complete agreement about how many stations were used on this Northern Route or exactly where most of them were located. Record keeping during this time was sporadic and incomplete due to the Indian threat, the intense activity developing the Comstock mines and a rush to get the trans-continental telegraph lines completed.

Fortunately, stagecoach routes and the Carson branch of the Old California trail passed through this area. It was a relatively simple matter to construct adobe or willow structures to serve as stations for the waning days of Pony Express service. At Millers/Reed’s Station, the route passed Susan’s Bluff, then turned north along a branch of the California Trail toward what is now U.S. Highway 50. The route then turned east toward Ragtown.

The following is a list of the names of stations believed to have been used on the Northern route or the Stillwater Dogleg: Desert Wells Station, Ragtown Station, Nevada Station, Bisby’s Station, Old River Station, Stillwater Station, Mountain Well Station, and Fairview Station. By the time the Pony Express was entering its final few weeks of operation, the telegraph lines had been completed to some of the stations and often news from the eastern states reached Nevada and California before the pony riders arrived with their mochilas full of mail.

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