Going Postal, Part 1

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
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

La Push to Sumas, Washington

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."


Barrow, Alaska
Barrow, Alaska by NASA ICE, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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.


Ochopee Post with flag
Ochopee Post with flag by Chris Griffith, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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

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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.

Highest Elevation Town in the United States

Occasionally I’m asked where I find ideas for the Twelve Mile Circle. There’s no simple answer. Sometimes I’ll notice an odd fact listed on a website or through a news source. Sometimes I’ll get curious when I see a strange query in my index files referred to me by a search engine. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by other geo-oddity aficionados. That’s the case today.

The Basement Geographer wrote recently about "La Rinconada: Bottoming Out at the Top of the World." This is a gold mining town in the Peruvian Andes at At 5,100 metres (16,700 feet) above sea level. The 50,000 people who live there in harsh conditions occupy a city with the highest altitude in the world. You should visit that article if you haven’t already seen it. The Basement Geographer is on the very short list of 12MC "must read" sites.

This inspired me to consider the town in the United States with a similar distinction on a national level. A lot of sources consider that to be Leadville, Colorado.

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Leadville has a rather impressive elevation. It’s not on the same scale as La Rinconada although it’s still rather impressive at 3,094 m (10,152 ft). Colorado law classifies Leadville as a Statutory City and it has a population of greater that 2,500.

Leadville trumpets a number of "highest" this-and-that distinctions for the United States: highest airport; highest golf course; highest hospital; highest college; and so forth. You get the idea. Leadville is rather proud of its distinction and calls itself the "The Two Mile High City." That’s an obvious taunt aimed squarely at a much more famous Colorado location, Denver, the Mile High City. Two miles would be 10,560 feet, which Leadville is not. Leadville seems to suffer from a slightly inflated altitude ego. That’s like people boasting that they’re 6 feet tall when they’re really only 5’11”.

Does Leadville really have the highest elevation? Well, it is indeed the highest city. However it is NOT the highest incorporated place in the United States. That honor goes to Alma, Colorado. Sort of. It’s complicated.

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Alma isn’t considered a city by Colorado law. Rather it’s a "statutory town" with a couple of hundred residents. It does sit at an elevation of 3,224 m (10,578 feet) according to the town of Alma government, which makes it a bit higher that Leadville. That’s serious elevation. I visited Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago, albeit at a little higher elevation, and I started getting loopy from a lack of oxygen. Alma actually does pass the two-mile altitude barrier.

There are also a couple of locations that have annexed adjoining ski resorts (Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico and Winter Park, Colorado). Personally I discount those. Nobody lives on the slopes. That’s cheating. If that’s allowable then maybe Talkeetna, Alaska (my visit) could annex a thin tendril to the top of Denali and end the US competition altogether.

City? Town? Location of inhabitants? What qualifies as large enough to claim the elevation prize? My vote goes to Alma.

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Incidentally I noticed that Leadville and Alma practically adjoin each other. They are separated by a single mountain. Yet, it would take almost an hour and a half to drive between them. It’s not pertinent to the article, just something interesting that happens to involve the two highest inhabited areas of the United States.

The United States doesn’t do very well on this competition considering its size. The best it can manage is 19th place. It doesn’t even have the highest altitude town in North America. Mexico beats the USA handily with 11th place at Raíces (3,531 m / 11,919 ft).

With apologies to the significant Canadian 12MC audience, Canada doesn’t seem to do particularly well at all. Canada scores only 74th place with a tepid showing at Lake Louise, Alberta (1,534 m / 5,033 ft), which frankly surprises me. There isn’t any other Canadian town with a higher elevation? That doesn’t feel right. I hope someone can prove otherwise.