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George W. Chorpenning Jr. (whose last name sometimes appears as "Chorpening") was a pioneer in the transportation of mail, freight, and passengers through the arid and undeveloped western regions of the United States. His efforts in the 1850s were vital to the integration of the then-new state of California with the established government and economy east of the Mississippi River.
George Chorpenning was born in 1820 in Somerset, Pennsylvania, the son of a county judge. In 1850 he traveled to California in search of gold. Disappointed, he realized that there was a critical need for fast and reliable mail service between California and the eastern states, most of which was then being transported by sea.
He teamed up with Absolam Woodward and, in April 1851, received a contract from the U.S. Post Office to provide monthly transport of the mail between Sacramento and Salt Lake City, the most difficult leg of the first "overland" mail service. Within months Woodward had died from an attack along the Humboldt River. Chorpenning persisted with the "Jackass Mail" service, but found that the monthly schedule was difficult to meet, and that their chosen route along the California Trail was difficult to follow, especially in winter, and especially in the Sierra Nevada and the hills of northeastern Nevada.
Chorpenning renewed his mail contract in 1854, but switched the route to an all-season road from Salt Lake City southwest to San Diego, and from there by ship to San Francisco. In 1858 he received a third government contract, this time for twice-monthly service and including stagecoach (passenger) service. By then Chorpenning had learned from Howard Egan about a more direct route from Salt Lake City, around the south end of the Great Salt Lake Desert, and through the mountains of central Nevada to the new towns of Carson City and Genoa. In 1859 Chorpenning used the eastern half of this route, connecting with the original Humboldt River route at Gravelly Ford, near present-day Beowawe. By 1860 the full central route had been surveyed by James H. Simpson and improved by the U.S. Army. Chorpenning built a series of provisioned way stations along the route to allow rapid exchange of mule teams.
Unfortunately Chorpenning also had his mail contract annulled in 1860, largely for political reasons. Companies headed by William Hepburn Russell took over the route, and used Chorpenning's way stations to establish the short-lived Pony Express mail service. The Pony Express became obsolete in late 1861 when the Transcontinental Telegraph, also using Chorpenning's route and way stations, became operational. Transportation along the Chorpenning's central route continued until the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
Chorpenning returned to the eastern states, where he was instrumental in organizing Civil War army units for the state of Maryland. Later, he unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Government to meet their contractual obligations for his mail transport service, a process which exposed the capricious nature by which they let (and annulled) contracts. George Chorpenning died in New York City in 1894. His hometown newspaper, the Somerset Herald, printed his obituary on April 11, 1894:
-- Death of Major Chorpening --
-- Was the First Man to Carry the Mails Across the Continent --
Major George Chorpening died in the New York Hospital, New York city, last Tuesday morning. He was born in Somerset, June 1, 1820. He was the first man to carry the United States mails across the continent.
He was the son of Hon. George Chorpening, an Associate Judge of this county, and spent the years of his boyhood around his father's farm. Afterwards he engaged in business in Stoystown. In the spring of 1850 he went to California. In the following year he established a mail business from Sacramento to Salt Lake City. The mails were carried on horseback and the route was gone over once a month. It was a hard journey of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and sixteen days was considered good time. Chorpening had a partner, Captain Woodward, of Indiana county, Pa. The first trip the Captain made he was killed by Indians. From that time on Chorpening had the contract alone.
He subsequently had a coach contract from the Missouri River to Placerville, California. This was the road over which Horace Greeley was driven by Hank Monch in one of Chorpening's coaches. Chorpening put the coaches on and laid out the road himself. He built post stations at every twenty miles for relays of horses.
Chorpening organized the First and Second Maryland Infantry in 1861, at the personal request of President Lincoln. He was made Major in the First Regiment and Colonel in the Second. For many years he had been prosecuting a claim against the government on mail contracts amounting to $430,000.
During the years that Chorpening was engaged in running coaches and carrying mails over the plains he was assisted by his brother-in-law, Mr. Irwin Pile, of this place. We believe that Mr. Pile has the distinction of driving the first coach ever driven across the plains to California.
For a number of years following the war Major Chorpening made his summer home in this place, where he owned one of the handsomest properties in town. His home was consumed by the great fire of 1872. The ground afterwards passed into the hands of John H. Miller and Henry Hefley, and is at present occupied by them. He had not visited Somerset for a number of years prior to his death.
He leaves two sons and two daughters, Mrs. F. A. McGee, of California, Frank G. Chorpening, of Berlin, and George W. Chorpening and Mrs. Johnson, both of New York city. The body was interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens, Long Island.
Mr. F. G. Chorpening was notified by telegraph of his father's sickness, but did not reach New York until after his death.
"Nevada's Northeast Frontier", by Eda Patterson, Louise Ulph, and Victor Goodwin, (1969), ISBN 978-0-87417-171-6
"Dictionary of American Biography", vol. II, p. 91
"The Man from Somerset", by Frank Winslow, published 1993, ISBN 978-0-533-10560-1. A semi-fictional account of the life of George Chorpenning.
"The Overland Mail 1849-69", by Leroy R. Hafen (1929). A detailed account of the various mail lines.