As the American population grew and stretched out over ever-increasing lands and territories, the most salient question was not “Do we need to provide mail to these populations?,” but how to effectively deliver their mail. The Post Office Department proved to be a resourceful and innovative force in this endeavor.
Early Tacoma U.S. Mail Bag - Job Carr Cabin Museum
Efficiency is the Goal
In 1845, Congress, in an attempt to reduce the cost of mail transport, relinquished its preferential or patronage appointments for mail transport, making provision for contracts to simply be awarded to the lowest bidder. These contracted bids were known as “celerity, certainty and security” bids, which would later be shortened to three asterisks or stars (***). The routes arising from the three star or “star” bids were referred to as “star routes.” Before the early 20th century, star route mail carriers primarily relied upon either horse-drawn vehicles or horseback for delivery of the U.S. mail. If weather conditions or geographical features demanded it, mail carriers utilized skis, boats and sleds to move the mail. (Service, Star Routes 2011) While much attention and ado has been paid to the Pony Express, its stalwart and brave carriers only rode from April 3, 1860 until the transcontinental telegraph line was completed on October 26, 1861. (Service, The Pony Express 2011)
The officials of the U.S. Mail had long practiced the policy of using any new technology available to improve mail delivery service. Steamships throughout the nation joined the service in 1811, carrying the mail to remote communities along rivers and waterways. At their peak, 200 steamboats held Post Office Department contracts to transport U.S. mail, serving waterfront communities on a regular basis. Thus, the Post Office Department declared waterways to be post roads. Transport of mail by steamship enjoyed a broader window of utility than the Pony Express, but it too peaked by the middle of the 19th century prior to the expansion of railroads. (Service, Moving the Mail - Steamboats 2011) On Puget Sound, mail delivery by steamboat lasted much longer. Communities built on islands and remote peninsulas relied on the waterways to transport all their needs, including the mail.
New Technologies Aide in Delivery
By 1862 early experiments with mail distribution in railroad cars had begun, and in 1864 the first U.S. railway post office route was established. (Service, Mail by Rail 2011) In 1873, Tacoma, Washington was selected as the western terminus of a transcontinental line being built by the Northern Pacific Railroad. (Armbruster 1997) This distinction would cause the modest town of 1,098 in 1880, to grow rapidly into a small city of 36,000 with two post offices by the end of 1890 (Moffat 1996).
The Post Office Department was relentless in its search for quicker more economical means of transporting the U.S. mail, and in 1896, experimented with the “horseless wagon.” By 1901 the Department had contracted for mail carriage by automobile in Buffalo, N.Y. between their post office and a postal station at the Pan American Exposition. (Reebel 2002)
Tacoma had more humble numbers back in 1869, when its population only numbered 100 (Moffat 1996) and it laid claim to one post office and one mail carrier – Anthony Carr. Anthony Carr was the son of the Tacoma, Washington founder and inaugural Postmaster, Job Carr. Tacoma’s first post office operated out of a front room in Job’s log cabin home. (Early Tacomans Rode Out To Steilacoom For Mail, 1929) Tacoma opened its arms wide to those moving west and it grew measurably. Unfortunately for the original Tacoma (now known as “Old Tacoma”), the new railroad "terminus” was located two miles south of that community and Job Carr’s post office, in a newly-established town named “New Tacoma.”
Anthony Carr - first mail carrier for Tacoma
1883 brought the merger of "Old" and "New" into one city named "Tacoma." The first railroad station (Union Station wasn't built until 1911) was completed and the city enjoyed a new-found status as a business and manufacturing hub. (Administration n.d.) Its economy expanded rapidly over the next two decades, and its population skyrocketed from just under 2,000 in 1873 to 37,714 in 1890. (Moffat 1996)
In Pierce County, Washington, mail traveled by various methods: horse and buggy, foot, canoe, steamboat, train, and horseback. Tacoma-bound mail frequently traveled down from Vancouver or up the coast via steamboat from Portland or San Francisco to Victoria, B.C. From there, it would be delivered to the town of Steilacoom, the County Seat. Anthony Carr, the first appointed mail carrier, traveled regularly to “town” to collect the mail. When the weather was nice, Anthony borrowed a horse to ride or paddled canoe to Steilacoom and back. After 1873, when the North Pacific Transcontinental Railway arrived in Tacoma, mail was transported increasingly by train, and other forms of delivery gradually became obsolete. (Ramsey 1981)
The way mail was delivered to Tacoma was not unique for the Post Office Department. Whether small town or bustling city, the responsive Department proved to be resourceful and creative in devising an efficient means of transporting the mail. From canoes to steam engine locomotives, the Department resolved to find solutions to a wide variety of challenges. As America grew, so too did the Post Office Department and its use of technology for mail service. When confronted with providing mail service to cities and communities flung over nearly 3.8 million square miles, the Department showed an unwavering pioneer spirit matched only by those it served.
Meanwhile, Tacoma residents had a fondness for steamboats such as the Eliza Anderson - the first Mosquito Fleet steamboat to deliver mail in the region - or the Alida - the first to deliver mail directly to Tacoma from Olympia. They also treasured the story of Tacoma's first system of postal delivery enough to preserve the memory and keep an account of Job Carr's service to his community and his country.
The Eliza Anderson - image from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection, negative No. 30077
Adminstration, U.S. General Services. Tacoma Union Station, Tacoma. http://www.gsa.gov/portal/ext/html/site/hb/category/25431/actionParameter/exploreByBuilding/buildingId/137 (accessed January 26, 2012).
Armbruster, Kurt E. “Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle.” Columbia, Winter 1997: 7-18.
Borneman, Walter R. Rival Rails. New York: Radom House Publishing Group, 2010.
Gambone, Michael D. Documents of American Diplomacy: From the American Revolution to the Present. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.
M.Kennedy, Thomas A. Bailey and David. The American Pageant. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1994.
Moffat, Riley. Population History of Western U.S. Cities and Towns, 1850-1990. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Ramsey, Guy Reed. “Tacoma.” In Postmarked, Washington: Pierce County, 20-25. Washington State Historical Society, 1981.
Reebel, Patrick A. United States Post Office: Current Issues and Historical Background. Hauppauge: Nova Science Pub Inc., 2002.
About the Author: Ms. Pulver graduated from Central Washington University in 2012, majoring in History. Her family lives on Bainbridge Island. While visiting the Cabin on a day-trip to Tacoma, she shared her interest in local history. She was invited to research this topic for a planned exhibit. An abridged version of the resulting document was published our newsletter (Eureka Times, Winter 2012 issue.)