Opinion & Editorial

Riding the rails 

A dog named Owney:  A nod to beloved animal mascots

Dear readers,  thank you for supporting The Chronicle and for following the Nostalgia Corner. I am pleased to be writing again after some time away.

Today’s column will be the story of a little dog named Owney, who appeared in the Albany railroad baggage mailroom. 

But first, let’s examine what the Rail Post Office is (RPO).

The first mail to be transported by railroad was on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) RR in 1827. The first official contract for the shipment of mail by rail was in 1838 with the B&O. At that time, Congress had authorized all RR as mail service roads. 

On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed the RR Act that financed the bringing together of the Eastern and Western railroads. This Act was completed at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, bringing together the Transcontinental Railroad, making it possible for a letter to go coast to coast in four days. 

The Rail Post Office was developed through converting baggage cars into mail-moving sorting stations. RPO cars were connected to passenger trains and given priority at switch yards and mainline service. 

As the program developed, there were up to 12 highly trained mail clerks in the larger service area. Many of the smaller lines had four clerks per car. The mail was dropped off at cities as they passed through, and outgoing mail was picked up — many times without stopping, in a process called a “hoop.” 

Outgoing mail sacks hung on a hook along the track, and a mail clerk in the moving car picked it up with a hoop. Delivered mail was thrown in a mail sack onto the platform.

As this process developed, there were up to 300 tons of mail moved per day by RPO cars. At its peak, there were over 30,000 mail clerks assigned to RPO postal service. These RPO’s covered over 9,000 railroad routes throughout the U.S. This trackage covered over 200,000 miles of rail. 

This story is prompted by an issue of TRAINS Magazine, and has prompted distant memories of past stories. It is about a mixed breed mutt named Owney.

The little dog showed up in 1888 at an Albany, N.Y. Post Office railroad station. It was presumed that he had followed a worker, and when that person left the job, the dog stayed and slept on mail bags. 

Postal workers defended the dog and named him Owney. He originally liked to ride mail carts carrying sacks of mail, as well as empty bags.

One day he hopped in a mail car and wound up in Milwaukee, Wis. He was gone for quite some time, but he returned to Albany. His fellow workers made him a collar with a name tag so he could be returned, should he disappear again, which he did.

 Owney rode the rails through the eastern U.S., and as he visited other post offices, the workers made him additional tags. The head of the Postal Service developed a vest to hang the dog’s ID tags on, as there were so many on the collar it was pulling Owney’s neck down. 

In the late 1880s, there were numerous minor train derailments. But it was noted that any train that Owney rode on had no derailments. And the National Postal Service recognized Owney as its mascot. He was credited with having over 140,000 miles of rail travel.

Murphy the parrotlet, the Chronicle’s office mascot, enjoys time spent eating seed in the newsroom and interacting with readers when they stop by. He may not have a stamp of his own like Owney, but he has inspired some fan art, seen in the background.

In 1897, starting in Tacoma, Wash., Owney embarked upon a worldwide travel by mail service.  His travels took him through South America, traveling with the mail bags throughout Asia, South Africa, the Middle East, across the United States, and returning to New York City on Dec. 23, and finally back to his PO friends in Albany. 

Owney met his death in Milwaukee. He had arrived at a RR station, and a new clerk tied him up, not recognizing the importance of the mascot. It is reported Owney was becoming feisty in his old age and he bit the clerk on the hand, and he was ordered destroyed. 

A police officer shot him in the alley. When other postal workers heard what had happened, they collected his body.  It first went to the Smithsonian Institute dressed in his vest with his many ID badges and tags. The ID sheet read that his occupation was an employee of the United States Post Office and was its “Guardian Traveler.” 

When the postal department built its museum, Owney was given a place of honor.

As a final tribute to Owney, mascot of the United States Mail Service, he was honored with a Forever Stamp in 2011. In checking eBay, to purchase a collectible 2011 Owney stamp, is just under $40 for a 20-stamp sheet, which would originally have cost $8.80. 

I would draw the readers’ attention to last week’s Chronicle, where there is a small picture of Murphy, Chronicle mascot, joining Owney the postal service mascot, and Dirt, the cat mascot of the Nevada RR, in a possible future article.

Don Williams is a longtime citizen of Cottage Grove, with deep roots in the community and a long history of community involvement. He writes the Nostalgia Corner for The Chronicle, a column that recounts stories and memories from the past — some personal, and some broad in subject matter.



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