As I mentioned in Part 1, the first installment dealt with physical post offices and this one will focus on methods of postal delivery. Both featured examples drawn primarily from the United States Postal Service’s "fun facts" page.
The Postman by Eric Gelinas, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Pack animals would seem to be an antiquated method of mail delivery. Certainly horses, mules or donkeys had their heyday up until about a century ago before being replaced unceremoniously by an upstart horseless carriage. A modern semi-truck might have around 400-450 horsepower. A draft horse would have, um, one. It didn’t take much convincing for the postal authorities to ditch their animals long ago and transport mail by mechanical means. That became a universal standard nationwide except for one incredibly inconvenient location — Arizona’s Grand Canyon, or more specifically the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Supai, Arizona (map) would be an excellent candidate for the most remote settlement in the Lower 48 states. No roads lead there. That would be impossible. Access required a helicopter or a strenuous hike down an 8 mile (13 kilometre) trail. Nonetheless two hundred people lived in Supai, the primary town of the Havasupai Tribe as they have for at least a thousand years. They required postal services just like everyone else. Mule trains continued to be the most cost-effective method. The USPS estimated each mule hauled about 130 pounds (59 kg) of postcards, letters or packages.
This same method was also used to deliver mail to the National Park Service’s Phantom Ranch, elsewhere at the bottom of the canyon.
JW Westcott II by Lauren, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Large freighters traveled regularly throughout the Great Lakes hauling grains, coal, iron ore and other commodities, as I learned from my visit to the Great Lakes Floating Maritime Museum. Mariners spent a lot of time away from home although not too far away from land. The Postal Service devised a way to get mail to these sailors as they passed through a narrow slot near the midpoint (map). The J. W. Westcott Co., established in 1874, won the contract to deliver mail to the freighters using its 45-foot boat.
Along the Detroit River, on any given day, a well-known diesel motorship brushes up against a much larger, passing vessel. A rope and bucket are lowered from the ship to the smaller boat, where messages, mail and other items are placed and raised back up. It’s the tradition called "mail in the pail" …and a legacy known as J.W. Westcott, the most reliable and dependable marine delivery service on the Great Lakes.
On June 8, 1959… the Navy submarine USS Barbero fired a guided missile carrying 3,000 letters towards the naval auxiliary air station in Mayport, Florida. Racing along at about 600 miles per hour, the guided missile traveled the more than 100 miles from the deck of the submarine off the coast of Florida to the air station in about 22 minutes… [Postmaster General] Summerfield was quoted as saying, "mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles." History proved differently.
Mail in this experiment traveled as the payload within a Regulus guided missile, with the letters replacing a nuclear warhead. An example of such an imposing missile can be seen today at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, in New York City as presented above (and map). What could possibly go wrong with a missile-based postal delivery service during the height of the Cold War? The test worked perfectly, other than the possibility of sparking an accidental nuclear Armageddon. It wasn’t particularly cost effective either in an era when jet-powered airmail was already feasible.
The longest rural delivery route caught my attention. According to the USPS that honor went to Route 081 based out of Mangum, Oklahoma (map). I had a hard time finding more information about the service because I was an idiot and my brain converted Mangum to Magnum. I’m not sure if I had guns, big bottles of wine or a cheezy television show from the 1980’s starring Tom Selleck on my mind at the time. I had no trouble finishing my research once I put that little issue behind me though: MAN-gum.
Apparently the subject captured popular imagination as well. The story of septuagenarian Jim Ed Bull and his 187.6 mi (302 km) route that served only 240 customers appeared prominently in both Bloomberg and the NBC Nightly News in 2013. There’s no sense in me repeating it though so feel free to watch the video.
This one might have been a little bogus although I enjoyed the story. Main Street was and has been the most common street name in the United States, no argument there. Of all of the Main Streets though, one of them had to be the longest. The USPS noted that it was Main Street in Island Park, Idaho at 33 mi (53 km). However I couldn’t find an actual "Main Street" in Island Park. The entire length seemed to be signed and addressed as US Route 20 (for example). Nonetheless, Island Park claimed it had the longest occurrence (see the banner on the city’s website) and various local business repeated the mantra. It appeared to a marketing gimmick.
The city of Island Park, for all other descriptive words, is "unique" in its entirety. It was incorporated in May 1947 to meet a state law requiring businesses that serve or sell alcoholic beverages to be within incorporated towns. The city’s government at the time drew up the city’s boundaries to include all the businesses from the Last Chance area north to the Montana border that desired licenses to serve and sell alcoholic beverages. All other areas of what is now known as the Island Park Recreational area remained in Fremont County.
It was about booze. Local lodge owners cobbled together a town 33 miles long and only 500 feet (150 m) wide astride US Route 20 so their patrons could drink. For that, they deserved to remain on the superlatives list forevermore.
I alluded to postal ZIP codes in the recent Zip Lines and I’ll carry that theme through the next couple of articles. I’d stumbled upon the United States Postal Service’s Fun Facts. Someday maybe I’ll explore what exactly makes a fact "fun" although for now I think I’ll simply steal liberally from that page and ponder some of its claims in greater detail. Today I’ll focus on post offices and in the next article I’ll shift to methods of delivery. Spoiler alert: don’t visit that USPS page unless you want to ruin the surprises.
Alma Colorado 2010 by Gord McKenna, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There was a surprising amount debate about the town with the highest elevation in the United States. I explored that previously in something I wrote a couple of years ago. Was it Leadville, Colorado, was it Alma, Colorado or was it some poseur town that annexed an adjoining ski resort? There was no doubt, however, about the post office building with the highest elevation. Clearly, that was the one in Alma (map) at 10,578 feet above sea level, serving ZIP Code 80420.
Rocky Mountain High, indeed. I’ll refrain from making any jokes about the highest post office being located in Colorado where a certain herbal substance has been legalized. We’re talking strictly about elevation here.
Northernmost and Westernmost – 48 Contiguous States
It’s not that I don’t love Alaska and Hawaii, its that they skew anything to do with directional superlatives in the United States. I’ll give a little nod to Alaska momentarily although for purposes of northernmost and westernmost post offices I’ll focus on the contiguous 48 States. They were both in Washington and not too distant from each other. Best of all, the preferred route calculated by Google required a ferry. That would put it pretty high on the 12MC list of sites I’d like to visit someday. I’ll bet readers in Seattle could probably accomplish this easily. Wouldn’t it be cool to tell folks that you’d been to the northernmost and westernmost post offices in the Lower 48 in a single day? Perhaps mail yourself a letter from each spot? Maybe I’m the only one who would find that interesting. I don’t know.
The northernmost post office served Sumas, Washington, Zip Code 98295. The ZIP Code abutted the Canadian border although that wasn’t special. Lots of other locations shared that attribute. What made Sumas different, however, was the physical location of its post office building just a stone’s throw away from the actual border. I also wondered about the name Sumas. The City of Sumas provided an explanation. It also provided a website that looked like it had been transported through a dial-up model directly from the 1990’s. Wander over there if you’re ever feeling nostalgic about how the Intertubes used to appear including the use of 3-D buttons as links, educating people to "click here" and the placement of a site counter at the bottom of the page.
Sumas (pronounced Soo’mass) means "land without trees". Although lake and swamp once covered most of the area there was also a considerable area that because of natural flooding was a wide open grassland.
The westernmost post office, on the Olympic Peninsula, served ZIP Code 98350 in La Push, Washington. Its name also had an interesting etymology: "La Push is from French La Bouche, meaning ‘The Mouth’ of the Quillayute River, adapted into Chinook Jargon."
The USPS bestowed a tie for the coldest post offices, for Barrow, ZIP Code 99723 and Wainwright ZIP Code 99782, both on Alaska’s North Slope along the Arctic Ocean. The site didn’t offer an explanation for "coldest" although I knew that neither of those locations represented the lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska. That happened that at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971, when the thermometer fell to -80°F / -62°C. Rather, I believe the claim was based on average temperature. Barrow routinely remains below freezing for eight months of the year, often considerably below. However its oceanfront location and lack of elevation variation tends to keep its very cold temperatures relatively stable versus the spikes and drops found farther inland. It’s also getting warmer.
Instrumented weather and climate observations were first made at Barrow during the first International Polar Year in 1881-82. The modern era of weather observations commenced in 1920. Climate observations have continued uninterrupted to the present. These observations support what every resident in America’s northernmost town can see: climate change is happening—right now—in obvious and dramatic fashion.
Look at the cute little post office for Ochopee, Florida, (map) serving ZIP Code 34141. Just look at it. The entire building covers only 61.3 square feet (5.7 square metres). A nearby historical marker explained the situation.
Considered to be the smallest post office in the United States, this building was formerly an irrigation pipe shed belonging to the J. T. Gaunt Company tomato farm. It was hurriedly pressed into service by postmaster Sidney Brown after a disastrous night fire in 1953 burned Ochopee’s general store and post office. The present structure has been in continuous use ever since-as both a post office and ticket station for Trailways bus lines-and still services residents in a three-county area including deliveries to Seminole and Miccosukee Indians living in the region. Daily business often includes requests from tourists and stamp collectors the world over for the famed Ochopee post mark. The property was acquired by the Wooten Family in 1992.
It wasn’t a joke. It was a temporary fix that became permanent due to inertia.
Oldest in the Same Building
Hinsdale Post Office by Doug Kerr, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I don’t know why this one fascinated me. Nonetheless it seemed remarkable that the post office serving Hindsdale, New Hampshire (map) had remained in the same building for two centuries, or about a century and a half before ZIP Code 03451 even existed. It didn’t have much of a backstory beyond its age. The town said its "1,327 square foot building was constructed on September 25, 1816, following the appointment of Hinsdale’s first postmaster in 1815." From an architectural perspective, "A Field Guide to American Houses describes this design as a Gable Front Family Folk house common on the East Coast of the U.S. before the Civil War." That was about all I found.
I noticed that Prince George’s County, Queen Anne’s County and St. Mary’s County — all in Maryland — included the genitive apostrophe to form their possessive constructions. I’d always taken it on faith that the United States Board on Geographic Names disallowed apostrophes for that specific purpose. That’s how we ended-up with Harpers Ferry and other odd conglomerations. The possessive remained albeit awkwardly without an apostrophe. I wondered how Maryland got away with it.
A little checking revealed a probable answer in the Board’s Frequently Asked Questions page: "certain categories—broadly determined to be ‘administrative’—are best left to the organization that administers them. Examples include schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, airports, shopping centers, etc." In those cases (and apparently counties were considered part of "etc."), possessives formed by an apostrophe-s were allowed although discouraged. Maryland felt that a prince, a queen and a saint would all deserve an apostrophe.
For names not considered broadly administrative, however, exceptions with the genitive apostrophe were extremely rare. The Board authorized apostrophes for that specific purpose only five times since its creation in 1890. Lots of theories and folklore attempted to explain that odd disdain for apostrophes although the FAQ proclaimed: "The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy." Someone a century ago apparently had a preference, made a bold decision and it stuck.
Each of the five exceptions merited further examination. Most were obscure. Fortunately the Geographic Names Information System included additional justification for these deviations and I could use them to tell their stories.
Martha’s Vineyard (map) would be the prime example. I won’t spend any time talking about it because I’d like to save that for another day. Maybe it’s wishful thinking or maybe it’s foreshadowing. I’ll simply note that if I ever want to tally Dukes County on my county-counting list I’ll need to travel to Martha’s Vineyard (or one of several smaller islands nearby).
GNIS described Ike’s Point as "a swamp point on the western side of Jenkins Sound about 0.4 km (0.25 mi) south of Shellbed Landing." It was named for a local family and it had been in common usage for at least 60 years when evaluated in the 1940’s. The Board decided to keep the apostrophe to clarify pronunciation. Otherwise it would have been Ikes Point and subject to interpretation. Surprisingly, Google Street View coverage went all the way to Shellbed Landing. It’s possible to sort-of see Ike’s Point.
The same issue pertained to John E’s Pond on Block Island, RI, not far from the Southeast Lighthouse (map). Otherwise it would have been John Es Pond. Originally the Board named this tiny pool of water something else, Milliken Pond. The decision was reversed in 1963 citing "apparent persistence in local usage, recently verified by GS field workers" that dated back to 1886. Actually, further statements in the record implied that another variation may have been more common, John E’s Tug Hole. Some 12MC Intertubes sleuthing found several other "tug holes" on Block Island: Dees Tug Hole (included in GNIS – map); Ames Tug Hole and Elija Tug Hole. Tug hole appeared to be a very localized term for a pond.
Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Arizona (approved 1995)
Joshua Trees by Melanie J Watts, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (map) certainly seemed to be a mouthful for an isolated slope in Arizona. The problem was that Carlos, Elmer and Joshua might confuse readers because all of them could be construed as first names. The place wouldn’t make any sense without the apostrophe. From the minutes of the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names, January 11, 1995:
Booth, Arizona Board member and proposer of the name, provided a brief biographical sketch of Carlos Elmer, long time Arizona photographer published in Arizona Highways Magazine. Booth commented that he had consulted with Elmer’s widow in trying to locate an area that he loved and to establish a name in memory of him, and together they pinpointed a mountain slope that is very dense with Joshua trees, a subject of many of Elmer’s photos… removing the word Joshua from the title would be inappropriate, because Joshua trees were the subject of the area that Carlos Elmer photographed.
The United States Board on Geographic Names concurred with the Arizona Board’s recommendation.
Clark’s Mountain retained its apostrophe for historical reasons. The name came about as part of events commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. William Clark likely admired the view from this eponymous mountain as told in the journal of Meriwether Lewis on January 10th, 1806.
Capt. C. found the road along the coast extreemly difficult of axcess, lying over some high rough and stoney hills, one of which he discribes as being much higher than the others, having it’s base washed by the Ocea[n] over which it rares it’s towering summit perpendicularly to the hight of 1500 feet; from this summit Capt. C. informed me that there was a delightfull and most extensive view of the Ocean, the coast and adjacent country; this Mout. I have taken the liberty of naming Clark’s Mountain and point of view; it is situated about 30 M. S. E. of Point (Adams) and projects about 2 1/2 miles into the Ocean…
Meriwether Lewis named the vantage point Clark’s Mountain — with an apostrophe — for his co-leader while the famed Corps of Discovery explored overland to the Pacific Ocean and back. The Board decided to honor his choice.