This Week in History


The Nova Scotia Pony Express

This story was initially published in 2002

On March 8, 1849, rival horsemen galloped across Nova Scotia at top speed in the second run of Nova Scotia's own "Pony Express." More than 10 years ahead of its famous American counterpart, the Nova Scotia Express provided a vital link in news transmission from Great Britain to the United States.

A view of Halifax around the time of the Pony Express

A view of Halifax around the time
of the Pony Express

© LAC / J. S. Clow / C-042271

In an age long before instant news communication via satellite, European news reached Canada and the United States by Cunard ships. Every week, these steamships journeyed from Liverpool, England to North America, bringing passengers, mail and the latest British newspapers. As the first North American port of call, Halifax received the news including valuable information about European financial markets days before any cities in the United States.

Seeing a window of opportunity, the Associated Press (AP), a co-operative of six New York newspapers, devised a "Pony Express" of men on horseback. Their goal was to race the European news 232 km from the Cunard ships in Halifax harbour to Victoria Beach, at the mouth of Digby Gut, "as fast as horse flesh can do it and live!" To ensure swiftness, horses were changed every 19 km and riders switched at Kentville, approximately halfway along the route. Once the news arrived at Victoria Beach, it was sent by steamship across the Bay of Fundy to Saint John, then telegraphed to Boston and New York. For all these efforts, the AP often published the latest news one full day before its competition.

A steamship near Digby Gut

A steamship near Digby Gut
© LAC / Alexander Cavalié Mercer / C-013774

The first Express run on February 21, 1849, was successful enough to warrant the establishment of at least one rival express. The expresses, running at an unprecedented speed of 29 km per hour, generated great excitement in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and local newspapers enthusiastically reported their weekly runs. Competition for the news was fierce; on one occasion, part of the telegraph line was cut by a group of speculators, preventing the AP's Express from telegraphing the news. Ultimately, the AP's Express prevailed. Despite the expense each run cost more than $1000 the AP ran their Express for nine months, until the telegraph's extension into Halifax eliminated the need for a "Pony Express."

For its intriguing role in news transmission, the Nova Scotia Pony Express was designated an event of national historic significance. Sir Samuel Cunard, founder of the Cunard line of steamships, is a person of national historic significance.

For more information, visit The Nova Scotia Pony Express website. For more information on Sir Samuel Cunard, see This Week in History's The Ship has come in!

Date Modified: