The Halifax Pony Express

by D. A. MacNeill

Dots & Dashes
Canadian National Telegraphs
April 1940

The first important steps towards organized dissemination of intelligence on this continent had Halifax as the heel-print and Digby as the end of the initial stride.

That first step was the Halifax Express, in which the Associated Press had its inception, and which, by a fortnightly desperate gallop from Halifax to Digby, placed English news in the hands of New York readers thirty-six hours before the arrival at Boston of the steamer on which the despatches crossed the Atlantic. In the records of the Nova Scotia Historical Society are stories of how the express riders covered the 144 miles in an average of eight hours, thrusting their sealed packages into the hands of waiting couriers for conveyance by steamer across the Bay of Fundy to the eastern extremity of the telegraph at Saint John.

The Halifax Express was in operation during nine months of 1849, between the establishment of the telegraph line from Saint John to Calais, Maine, whence it was hooked up with Boston and New York, and its extension to Halifax. In those days the English mail steamers ran between Liverpool and Boston, calling at Halifax. News from England was then the news of the world. It came in fortnightly budgets from London, not as now in continuous despatches over leased wires from the ends of the earth. It was this condition that brought the New York newspapers together and caused the Associated Press to be founded. It also demonstrated the necessity of extending the telegraph to Halifax.

Canadian National Telegraphs, April 1940

From 1825 on, a revolution had slowly been taking place in methods of news gathering. In that year Topliff and Blake had begun prowling about Boston Harbor and selling shipping and market intelligence. Later on Hale and Hallock purchased the New York Journal of Commerce and extended the system, employing a seagoing yacht to meet the incoming European steamers and relaying their information to the presses by carrier pigeons, semaphore signals, and every available means.

Competition between the New York papers was keen. James Gordon Bennett had a horse express in operation between Boston and New York after the establishment of the Cunard steamship line between Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston. In the New England city, Topliff and Blake had now been succeeded by D.H. Craig, who sometimes communicated with his office in Boston by carrier pigeon from a point fifty miles at sea, after meeting incoming steamers with his schooner.

Among Craig's exploits, it is related that coming to Halifax as one of a party of newspaper men who had chartered a steamer to meet the English mail, he secreted two pigeons in a basket, releasing them while still many miles at sea on the return trip. Thus others of the party found the despatches already public property when they landed in Boston harbor.

Meanwhile, Morse had been struggling with the telegraph, and by 1849 the lines had been extended to Saint John. The English news was of immense value to speculators, particularly that relating to world markets, and in order to keep pace with private speculators and protect the public, as well as safeguard their own interests, six New York newspapers established the Halifax Express. D.H. Craig was the first superintendent at Halifax. Thus Halifax became the first foreign station and Craig the first foreign correspondent of the Associated Press.

Budgets of news, generally running to 3,000 words, were delivered to Craig's men, often before the steamers reached their piers, and rushed to Victoria Beach, Digby (sic) by two riders, changing at Kentville, and taking fresh horses every twelve miles. The express had competition, for the private speculators did not relish being beaten to New York with valuable information. The races of the rival expresses through little Nova Scotia villages are still the subject of somewhat vague traditions in that section of the country. The first Express left Halifax on the morning of February 21st, 1849, and reached Digby (sic) over eleven hours later, a record that was lowered by over three hours on the next trip. On one occasion only two and one-half minutes separated the rival horsemen at the finish. At another time, when the Express was being run in the dead of night, a rider felt his horse give a tremendous leap, and was unaware until the next day that his faithful animal had taken in his stride a twenty-foot gap in a highway bridge.

The cost of maintaining the expresses was about $1,000 for each mail arrival, besides this the newspapers contributed largely to the upkeep of the telegraph. Boston newspapers shortly came into the association and bore their share of the cost.

The British Colonist, a Halifax newspaper of the time, remarked editorially: "Had we ever entertained any doubts as to the importance of an electric telegraph being constructed between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick the following fact would suffice to remove scepticism. The America arrived on last Thursday morning, and incredible as it may seem, the English and foreign news which she carried was published in New York on the same evening."

The first telegraph despatch to be published in a Halifax paper appeared when the line was extended from Saint John to Halifax. It was headed "Great Storm at Portland" and read: "Saint John, N.B., Nov. 14th, 1849. Ten buildings blown down on Friday night. No other news per steamer."

The first despatch of English news by telegraph direct to New York and Boston was completed on November 15th, the following day. Thus was terminated the Halifax Express.


by W.J. Gringras

Approximately 25,500 miles 41,100 kilometres of telegraph wire is required to transmit a radio broadcast programme from coast to coast to an average number of stations. Of this amount, 17,000 miles 27,400 kilometres (two wires) is required for the actual transmission of the programme, and 8,500 miles 13,700 kilometres (one wire) to provide a telegraph circuit over which technicians in control rooms can talk back and forth and arrange equipment adjustments while the broadcast is in progress. While 25,500 miles of wire represents the mileage actively in service during a coast to coast broadcast, other thousands of miles of wire are available to which a program can be switched by control room manipulation in the event of line trouble.

When the telegraph was first introduced in Canada in 1846 the English system of coinage was still in use. Early telegraph blanks quoted the rates in shillings and pence above the body of the message.

This is the end of the Dots & Dashes material.

Not Digby!

This article repeatedly refers to Digby as the Express destination:

"...Digby as the end..."
"...desperate gallop from Halifax to Digby..."
"...rushed to Victoria Beach, Digby..."
"The first Express...reached Digby..."

But the destination was not Digby.

Not the town of Digby, and not even Digby County.

The destination was Victoria Beach, Annapolis County.

Digby isn't even close. If a tourist family, today, should take
directions from this article, and drive to Digby looking for the
Pony Express Monument which marks the Express destination,
they will find they are a good hour's drive from the true site.

The mistake seems to arise from carelessness about names.

The Express destination was Victoria Beach on Digby Gut.
The chartered steamship lay at anchor in Digby Gut as it
waited for the Horse Express to arrive. The transfer of the
Associated Press news package, from the horse to the
chartered steamship, occurred on the shore of Digby Gut.

Digby Gut, yes. But not Digby.

This seems to be one of those notorious historical mistakes that, once it has
occurred, cannot ever be corrected. It just keeps on being copied from one writer
to another, gaining new life with each repetition.

In March 2002, the Halifax Regional Municipality website, in the section
on the History of Halifax, at
contains the following:
"The bundle of news was dropped from the Cunard liner to
a boat in the harbour, passed to a rider on the shore and
rushed across the province to Digby."

It isn't true! More than a year ago, I sent them an e-mail asking that they correct
this mistake, but to this day there it is, part of the official history as published
by the Halifax Regional Municipality.   Apparently they just don't give a damn.

Notes (by ICS, April 1999)

...From 1825 on, a revolution had slowly been taking place in methods of news gathering. In that year Topliff and Blake had begun prowling about Boston Harbor and selling shipping and market intelligence...

[page 230] In the early years of the nineteenth century, Henry Ingraham Blake, of the Mercury and New England Palladium regularly boarded a small boat and rowed out to to collect the latest news from incoming ships in Boston harbor.
[page 348] Samuel Topliffe, Jr., of the Exchange Coffee-House also spent time in a rowboat in Boston Harbor in these years, gathering news which was then made available, for a fee, to readers in the coffeehouse.
[Excerpted from A History of News by Mitchell Stephens, Penguin Books, 1988, ISBN 01400.94903]

...James Gordon Bennett had a horse express in operation between Boston and New York after the establishment [in 1840] of the Cunard steamship line between Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston...

[page 30] James Gordon Bennett arranged horse expresses earlier than that, for the purpose of obtaining news quickly. In 1832, when Bennett was working as associate editor for the New York Courier and Enquirer, there was a change of management which redirected Bennett's energy more to news-gathering than to editorial work. He travelled as a correspondent, and organized a horse relay service "that brought the president's message from Washington to New York in fifteen hours."
[Excerpted from The James Gordon Bennetts, Father and Son: Proprietors of the New York Herald by Don C. Seitz, Bobbs-Merrill, 1928]

More About the
Nova Scotia Pony Express

The 1849 Nova Scotia Pony Express

Photographs of the Nova Scotia Pony Express monument

The Pony Express Plaque Installed in 1949 100th Anniversary

Halifax Express The Novascotian, 26 February 1849

Halifax Express The British Colonist, 10 March 1849

Halifax Express The Acadian Recorder, 10 March 1849

The Second Run of the Nova Scotia Pony Express 8 March 1849

Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849, by John Regan 5 January 1912

Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849, by George Mullane 1 Jan 1914

Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849, by Murrille Schofield 1973

Nova Scotia Pony Express, by CBC Radio 11 June 1999

The Cunard Steamship fleet, 1849
These ships brought the news carried by the Pony Express

Burket's Exchange News Room Halifax 1848-1849

Pony Express Editorial, Halifax Chronicle-Herald 15 Feb 1999

Radio Station X1J1F Victoria Beach, Nova Scotia, 1999
set up in recognition of the 150th anniversary
of the 1849 Nova Scotia Pony Express

The Oregon Boundary dispute, 1849
Britain and USA close to war – the Nova Scotia Pony Express
was the fastest link carrying breaking news to U.S.A.

Go To:   Nova Scotia History

Photographs of War Memorials, Historic Monuments and Plaques in Nova Scotia

Go To:   Nova Scotia Quotations

Go To:   History of Telephone Companies in Nova Scotia

Go To:   History of Railway Companies in Nova Scotia

Go To:   History of Electric Companies in Nova Scotia

Go To:   History of Automobiles in Nova Scotia

Go To:   Home Page

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