Strategically placed relay stations across the western frontier proved to be a major contributing factor to the early success of the Pony Express mail service. "Station keeps," assigned to these outposts readied swift horses, fresh and rested, for each rider. Often working in pairs, day and night they kept a vigil for incoming riders.
Life at these stations covered a broad spectrum of living conditions depending upon location and situation. Home stations were generally better established and more accommodating, even luxurious by some standards. Remote relay stations, especially in the West, were often exceedingly primitive.
In St. Joseph, Missouri, Patee House was one of the most luxurious hostelries on the frontier. This four story brick building, which is still standing, was well known for its social life and gala balls and parties. Smith Hotel in Seneca, Kansas, and the Salt Lake House in Utah were other prominent hotels which served as comfortable home stations for riders and company personnel.
West of Salt Lake City and across the Great Basin to California, accommodation and quality of life tended to go downhill. Hot, dry summers and bitter cold winter often were the only companions for station keepers. On other days, loneliness and idle time were interlaced with fending off horse thieves and Indian attacks. Frequently exposed to danger, many lost their lives in this daring American enterprise.
Though the Pony Express has become a romanticized legend in American history, the station keeps—those who kept the horse waiting and bid "Godspeed" to the rider as he galloped away—are the true unsung heroes of the Pony Express.