In a national park stands an old ramshackle building, constructed more than 140 years ago. Not much to look at, the place still attracts visitors from across the country, their imaginations captured by the history and romance of the place. In this building and on this land, the past is not truly at rest, and some say they can feel those long since dead still riding the grounds on phantom ponies, crying out in the night, or even pacing between the room. As fascinating as the building is, there is an element of terror for those who visit, as amid the postcards and memorabilia of times gone by, something else lurks. As to why they linger, there are many theories, perhaps their passion or the dangerous lives they lived. Still, few can deny that the phantom riders exist, and continue to ride long past their time.
“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” Yes, the advertisement is real, but it is not a lure for children for Hollywood’s pedophile of the week. The ad originally ran in 1860, its hope to attract workers for the most dangerous job of the day, riders for the famed Pony Express. High emotions and excitement, danger on a daily basis, and real tragedy created a mystique around these brave souls, but it also left an imprint wherever they went. When one considers those that stayed within them, there is little wonder as to why such places might be haunted.
In 1860, mail was delivered by stagecoach all across the growing United States, sometimes taking more than three weeks to reach its destination. Coaches were also vulnerable to attack by bandits and hostile natives alike. When the federal government and western settlers demanded a better means of communication, an idea was struck by the Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to hire more than 180 single riders to carry the mail on horseback in half the time. They invested $700,000 capital into the business, ran the add, and the Pony Express was born.
Riders of the time were usually around twenty, though the youngest was only eleven years old and the oldest in his mid-forties. They all weighed in at around 120 pounds, and were expert horsemen. They rode in relay fashion, with mail sacks being passed off every seventy-five to one hundred miles to the next waiting courier, though they did switch to fresh ponies every ten or fifteen miles. They braved hostile Indians, dangerous terrain, and weather in which no sane person would venture, all with the sense of duty of getting people the letters of their loved ones. For their services, their sacrifices, and in many cases their deaths, they were paid $100 a month.
Along their travel route, many stations popped up, looking to take advantage of the traders and the money that changed hands. They provided stables for horses and lodging for the weary riders, often serving as unofficial post offices in the process. One such station actually began in 1858 as a farm owned by Gerat and Sophia Hollenberg. The single-room building soon expanded into a grocery store and weigh-station for settlers traveling the Oregon-California Trail. By the time the Pony Express began using their facilities, they had added stables, rooms on the second floor, wagon repair facilities, and even began selling arms to western travelers.
The Pony Express, though remarkably important in the history of America, lasted less than two years in operation, brought to its demise by the telegraph. The company who founded the Pony Express, anticipating a million-dollar contract from the government, wound up losing more than $20,000 on the deal and filed for bankruptcy soon after. Most of the rest stations were abandoned as business dried up and fell into disrepair, crumbling under the weight of time.
But not the Hollenberg. Eight years after the demise of the Pony Express, the town of Hanover was founded on the former Hollenberg land. Together, the citizens made an effort to preserve the building, recognizing even then its importance in history.
Visitors flock to the old station every year, each one filled with respect and awe for the young men who risked, and often lost, their lives in the name of the mail. Many visitors and employees alike swear that not all of them have left, telling stories both strange and chilling.
The most common phenomena reported in the old station are the sounds of hoofbeats where there are no horses present. Often, workers have spoken of hearing what could only be described as horses racing past the building in the night or even in the day. Those pounding sounds are often accompanied by loud shouts, like the ones riders used to give when the stations were in sight to give the next rider a chance to saddle up. Other sounds heard are heavy bootsteps on the wooden floor in empty rooms and coming from the upper floors when the building is otherwise empty. Usually, these sounds are accompanied by a drastic chill in the air, a cold spot, that most believe are some of the young riders returning to their post.
There have also been several apparitions reported on the grounds, such as young men in chaps and wide-brimmed hats who disappear when approached. Even the specter of Gerat Hollenberg has been reported on occasion. It is his ghost that the employees believe is responsible for rearranging displays and displacing merchandise.
The most disturbing spirit to haunt the old station is believed to be that of a young rider who was found off the trail after he’d been attacked by Indians. His fingers had been cut off, his tongue cut out, and there were, according to some reports, several arrows stuck in his back. His mail bag was, according to legend, still in his possession. The young man was taken to the station where Sophia tried in vain to heal his wounds. He died in agony. Several shaken visitors have claimed to have seen his bloody, mutilated body lying in the floor of one of the rooms, only to disappear after an instant. Still others have seen him wandering the halls, blood leaking from his mouth and hands. He appears very sad to those who have seen him, and vanishes without a trace.
Thanks to the efforts of the founders of Hanover, the Hollenberg Station is the only Pony Express station left standing in its original location. Today it exists as a museum in a Kansas-state historical park. Reports of cold spots and phantom noises, along with the apparitions of Gerat Hollenberg and the young tortured rider still appear to guests and employees alike, and the phantom riders still race past the station.
Although phenomena are reported throughout the year, mostly at night, reports seem to intensify during the summer months, when hot weather and increased Indian attacks wreaked havoc with the express riders. It is also during these months that bloody rider is most often reported. The museum, however, is open year round, from Wednesday through Saturday, to any visitor wishing to learn about this curious and heroic chapter in American history.
See you in two weeks!