Thursday, February 17, 2011


Sometime in 1831, and probably on a South Carolina railroad, a local postmaster in a hurry got the idea of asking a locomotive engineer to hand-carry a mail pouch to another destination along the line, thereby beating the best stage coach delivery by a noteworthy margin. This, and other such experiments, no doubt brought attention to the British Railway System which had begun doing the same thing on the Liverpool to Manchester route a year earlier, using special mail carriages. On July 7, 1838 the U.S. Congress designated all railroads as official postal routes, and the age of steam was poised to alter the whole concept of communication across the growing expanse of North America.
In 1862, as the American Civil War was entering its second year, the “railway post office” came into being, with converted baggage cars put into service on the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, which in turn connected with the Pony Express. In the years to come an important step forward was made when cars were especially designed to facilitate the sorting and bundling of mail en route, eliminating the need for pre-sorting at both ends, and making possible delivery at way points in between.
Railroad Postal Offices (RPO’s) would become the very backbone of rapid mail delivery in America, and would remain so for another century, finally phasing out in the 1960s, as commercial aviation and the Interstate highway system matured, and railroads declined. (As a matter of fact, many railroad systems had depended on U.S. Mail contracts for their existence as passenger traffic had fallen off.)
Over the years, the RPO turned into a highly-efficient “post office on wheels”, manned by a select group of mail clerks who worked long hours on their feet in a 70-mile-per-hour, clicking, rolling and bouncing environment, where they had to memorize hundreds of details of information in order to anticipate ultimate destinations spanning thousands of miles of delivery routes; they were unable to rely on printed references or schedules of any kind. As a youth, I knew one of these devoted postal employees, who was seldom at home, but sound asleep during the hours when he was. He was the father of a “best friend”, and I came to think of him as a “ghost”.
In order to serve the many towns through which passenger trains traveled without stopping, mail pouches were picked up from high-speed hooks suspended beside the tracks at the same instant a RPO clerk would kick a sack of mail for that destination out the open door. It should be pointed out that this was dangerous duty anyway. Because the mail car was at the front of the train, (usually right behind the coal tender), derailments, collisions and other train mishaps found the crews in an exposed position.
And that brings us to the second part of this story.
On a cold autumn night in the “blizzard year” of 1888, postal workers in Albany, New York found a puppy nestled among a pile of mail sacks in their office. A mixed-breed terrier, the waif became a resident of the place, finding a mysterious attachment to mail sacks, whether fabric or leather. He seemed only happy and content when in contact with the U.S. mail. One day, he thus managed to find his way to a mail train and embarked on his first rail journey, returning to the Albany post office to the amazement of his benefactors who continued to feed and care for him. This was just the beginning of a travel career which would span nine years for the “Post Office Pooch” who picked up the name “Owney”. (Nowhere can I find any recorded origin for the name.) Wishing to insure his care and safe return from the increasingly distant journeys, the workers affixed a harness and label to Owney, requesting as well that postal employees at distant destinations would attach some kind of tag or adornment as evidence of his travels.
In the years to come, Owney would accumulate a total of 1,017 tokens, medals and trinkets, each of which would be preserved by his caretakers at the Albany office. Owney became not only the mascot of the Albany staff, but a sought-after traveler on cars of the railway postal service where he was looked upon as a “good luck” mascot. As long as the Terrier was cuddled among the mail bags loaded aboard, no accident would ever befall a train on which he rode. (Between 1890 and 1900, 80 railway postal clerks were killed and 2000 injured in a record number of wrecks and accidents across the U.S.!)
As if his hundreds of rail journeys were not record enough, Owney made a round-the-world trip, by steamship and train in 1895, visiting Japan (twice), China, the Suez, Algiers and the Azores, returning to Albany 132 days and 143,000 miles later. Convinced that the traveling terrier must belong to someone of importance, Japanese officials issued Owney an Imperial Passport, entitling him to travel anywhere in the world.
Worn out and nearly blind, Owney retired from the Postal Service in 1897, and died shortly thereafter. . A preserved Owney stands today in a glass display case along with his collection of tags and tributes at the U.S. Post Office Museum in Washington, D.C.

Shown with some of his one thousand-seventeen medals, Owney the Postal Pooch is pictured late in his adventuresome life. Smithsonian Photo

The interior of a Railway Post Office of the 1940s shows the system of folding mailbag holders, and the crowded working area in which the highly-trained RPO staff sorted and processed mail. A fully restored postal car can be seen at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento.
Catskill Archive Photo

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