“PONY EXPRESS” 150th ANNIVERSARY (January 22/99)

Before the telegraph reached Nova Scotia and railroad tracks were laid across the province there was news delivery by pony express.

In reality it was a horse express – the name “pony express” was borrowed from the Americans – and while it was a short-lived venture, it stirred the imagination of Nova Scotians. The pony express operated Between Halifax and Digby Gut in 1849 for a period of about nine months for the sole purpose of rushing European news to a group of newspapers in New York.

I have Ivan Smith, Canning, to thank for pointing out that February 21 is the anniversary date of the first running of this little-known enterprise. “This occasion deserves some media recognition,” Mr. Smith said recently via e-mail.

Mr. Smith forwarded an article on the pony express by John W. Regan which ran in the Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1912. In a nutshell, the pony express was a relay service which met mail steamers from England and rushed dispatches to Digby Gut; from there the dispatches were ferried to the St. John telegraph office and wired to New York. The pony express, in other words, was simply an effort by the group of New York newspapers to be the first to print European news in America.

As mentioned, the pony express had a short life span. The telegraph lines were extended to Halifax in November, putting an end to the courier service. However, from February to November, Nova Scotians were treated to the dashing, often daily runs of the pony express. In his Historical Society article Regan said that at first there were “two rival expresses” and the competition between them “passing through a post-village caused as much excitement as a mail-steamer arriving in Halifax.”

According to Regan the “relays of galloping horses covered the 144 miles from Halifax to the Digby Gut ferry in an average time of eight hours or a mile in about 3.29 minutes.” The fastest time for the run may have been seven hours and 15 minutes according to a letter published in the Windsor Mail in 1879.

There is no doubt that these times were excellent compared to other means of relaying news in Nova Scotia in that period. In 1830, for example, the top time for a passenger coach running from Halifax to Annapolis was 18 hours, excluding the overnight stop in Kentville. (Source: Woodworth’s history of the Dominion Atlantic Railway.)

In his article Regan said that the journey from Halifax to the ferry was “performed by two riders who changed at Kentville and was divided into twelve stages with a fresh horse about every twelve miles.” Although it isn’t made clear in the article, relay stations may have been located in the Valley at Windsor, Kentville (and a point halfway between these towns), Berwick, near Kingston and so on down the line.

Another early means of communication in Nova Scotia was mentioned recently by Leon Barron. At one time there was a telegraph semaphore system linking Halifax with Annapolis. Apparently the semaphore stations were placed in sight of each other (obviously given the means of communication) on hills along the old Annapolis Road.

According to Ivan Smith, this system was in operation in the late 1790s or early 1800s. However, few details are available. Leon Barron says that years ago a history of this system was published in the newsletter of a provincial ham radio club – perhaps an Annapolis Valley club – and I’m trying to track it down.

I’m also looking for information on an old military road in Kings County – the Six Rod Road – and the so-called August Gale that created havoc in Nova Scotia in 1873. Can any readers help?

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