On the brighter side, look how well that Mormon temple-building project turned out. As you can see just a few blocks away, they finally finished that temple in the early 1890s. It rises 210 feet, topped by a golden angel, flanked by fountains, statuary and manicured gardens. Yet the building continues. In the same neighborhood, the Mormon Church is redeveloping a 20-acre chunk of downtown with new housing and retail in place of old retail, a billion-dollar project to be completed in 2012. I've never seen so many clean-cut construction workers.
I was just as eager to tell them about the Pony Express. It was a stand-off there on the sidewalk, my degree of interest in their message mirrored precisely by their degree of interest in my message. We went our separate ways, grinning awkwardly.
Sacramento was already a big city in 1860, bursting with nearly 14,000 residents, most of whom had arrived since the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848. (These days, Sacramento has 465,000 residents.) The city was also about to be hit with a historic flood in December 1861, which would prompt a massive civic effort to lift up the entire city. By the 1870s, most of Sacramento's key buildings would be raised as much as 18 feet higher than they were in 1860.
The city's riverside location meant easy steamboat traffic to San Francisco and made it a natural terminus for the Pony Express.
Now, here, I have to admit that I've always found Old Sacramento kind of cheesy. Though it sits by the Sacramento River, the Tower Bridge looming above and the Capitol building a few blocks off, the boardwalks and Old West tourist shops always seemed best suited for tourists under age 12, and the hum of the neighboring freeway seemed just a little too loud. But when you arrive in Sacramento after several days of retracing 19th century tracks, Old Sac seems not only logical but almost ideal. I even sprang for an eight-block clippity-clop ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
I walked up and down the final block of the original Pony Express riders' route. I chatted up the volunteers with the California State Railroad Museum as they maneuvered a locomotive. And as soon as it opened for the day, I jumped across the threshold of the B.F. Hastings Building.
This storefront, built in 1853 at 2nd and J, was the Pony Express office. At various times, it has also housed the Alta Telegraph Co., the state Supreme Court and Wells Fargo. Now it's a tiny museum, the Wells Fargo History Museum, just updated to include more Pony Express details.
From that first batch of Pony Express mail, historians say, eight letters were addressed to Sacramento, and 25 more were carried aboard the boat to San Francisco. By the last months of the cash-strapped Pony's operations, about 35,000 letters had been carried by its riders. Wells Fargo had taken over many operations west of Salt Lake City, and many riders stopped at Folsom or Placerville.
Then on Oct. 24, that first transcontinental telegraph message went through. Two days later, the Sacramento Bee offered up an institutional obituary: "Our little friend, the Pony, is to run no more.... Nothing that has blood and sinews was able to overcome your energy and ardor; but a senseless, soulless thing that eats not, sleeps not, tires not … has encompassed, overthrown and routed you."
Yet by many measures, this was the beginning of the fame of the Pony Express.
Richard Francis Burton, the English author who had come west to investigate the Mormons in 1860, wound up writing at length about the Pony Express in "The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California," published circa 1861-62. Mark Twain, who crossed paths with a rider in Nebraska in 1861, set down his description in the 1872 book "Roughing It."
"Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky," Twain wrote.
Then there was artist Frederic Remington, who painted "The Coming and Going of the Pony Express" in 1889.
But the Pony's greatest posthumous promoter may have been Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West show toured North America and Europe from 1883 to 1916. Though other parts of the show came and went, there was always a segment telling the tale of the Pony Express.
"This was not the West of the mindless slaughter of the buffalo, the decimation of the Indian, or the greedy exploitation of the land. This was not the West of gunfighters or cattle rustlers," writes Christopher Corbett, author of "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express." Instead, Corbett writes, "The story of the Pony Express was about a lone rider facing the elements, racing time and racing the transcontinental telegraph, too."
If you step out of the old Pony office at 2nd and J in Old Sacramento and look to the opposite street corner, you'll see what I saw at end of my excursion on the Pony trail: a batch of plaques and a tall sculpture of a very young rider with a hawkish face, ferociously urging his horse onward. He is a Pony Express rider, he is doomed, and he just might live forever.