Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Nova Scotia Pony Express

The Annapolis Royal region has a strange and somewhat unknown history in the development of international, trans-Atlantic communications. Yes, the i-phone can trace part of its development to this part of the world, but this is not what I am talking about. This story takes place a long time before the i-phone was ever imagined.

In 1849, a group of New York City newspapers banded together to form a new enterprise. The mandate of this new organization was to get the news of the day from London to New York faster. This group appropriately called themselves the Associated Press. Even to a newspaper in 1849, it was worth a significant amount of effort to get their stories faster. To do this, the company would make use of ships owned by the Cunard Steamship Lines. Cunard, the company founded by Nova Scotian Samuel Cunard, was the first shipping company to offer regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings. The regularity of this service permitted the organization of an information relay which seems very strange today.

When the ship arrived in Halifax, the first package to be taken off was the news from London. A horse and rider were immediately dispatched. It didn’t matter what the time of day was nor the weather, the news had to move. The route of the first rider would take him from Halifax across the Nova Scotia peninsula to Kentville. Every 20km (about 12 miles) the rider would blow a horn to alert a stable of his impending arrival. When the rider arrived at the stable he leapt from the horse and waited as a fresh mount was saddled. Legend has it that the riders would dance madly trying to get circulation back into their legs as stable hands worked on the horses. As soon as the horse was saddled, the rider was off again.

When the rider arrived in Kentville, another rider took over. Those of you who are familiar with the history of the Annapolis Heritage Society’s O’Dell House Museum will know that this second rider was Corey O’Dell. His route took him from Kentville to the small community of Victoria Beach which is located at the Digby Gut. From here the news was loaded onto a steam ship bound for Saint John, New Brunswick. When the ship arrived the news was cabled to New York via Bangor, Maine and Boston. In terms of saving time, the news arrived an average of 36 hours earlier than it would have if the ship had sailed directly to New York.

Various stories of the feats of Pony Express riders still exist. One story tells how on a foggy night in Berwick a rider only learned that a bridge was out when his horse landed safely on the other side. Another story tells how a rider rode into the Entertainment House in Granville Ferry at full gallop, grabbed a drink with one hand and rode out the door on the other side of the building. While these are interesting stories, they are probably more legend than fact.

The horse relay across Nova Scotia took an average of eight hours. To put this into context, today it would take at least 2 ½ hours to drive from Halifax to Victoria Beach in a car. As for the Pony Express itself, this service was halted about nine months after it started. At that time, the telegraph cable across Nova Scotia was completed and the riders went to find other work. Corey O’Dell eventually opened an inn and tavern on the waterfront in Annapolis Royal. To commemorate the Nova Scotia Pony Express, the Government of Canada has placed a National Historic Site monument in Victoria Beach. The plaque on this monument is the image at the top of this post.
All for now,


  1. Neat story! Thanks for sharing.

  2. We've read that plaque many times as we trek around during our vacations to Annapolis Royal. Thanks for "fleshing" out the history with more details....see you in late June/early July. Libby & Dave Allain