Beasts Of Burden
Stamp Magazine|November 2019
Animals harnessed for postal purposes have come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the choices and some of the scenarios might surprise you
John Wright

Post delivered slowly has long been jokingly referred to as ‘snail mail’, but in reality there are many genuine examples of tail mail: letters carried by postal workers with a tail.

In most cases these are furry, in some cases feathered. Pigeons, horses, donkeys, mules, dogs, camels, reindeer and goats (allegedly even cats) have all been employed as mail carriers. In some cases, they still are.

Dogs in Britain You might be surprised to learn that dogs were once used to transport the mail in Britain, during the era of postal reforms and the Penny Black, no less.

The Postal Museum has a record of a contractor’s mail cart, pulled by four canines, plying a route between Chichester and Arundel in West Sussex, from 1830 to 1850.

One advantage may have been security. A highwayman once attempted tried a night-time robbery in the woods, but the driver was able to speed off.

A disadvantage was that dogs often scared the horses that pulled the mail coaches. One London-to-Manchester mail coach overturned in one such incident in July 1837, killing the driver and injuring passengers. By 1855, dog carts had been banned.

Dogs in Alaska

In snowy wilderness, using dogs to pull sleds is an obvious choice. Dog teams have carried mail in parts of Alaska, Canada and Russia, for example, for many years.

Remote Alaskan settlements which might be cut-off from civilisation between October and May started benefiting from a regular dog-sled mail service in the 1910s, and continued to do so until the 1960s.

Chester Noongwook never let bad weather stop him and his dogs completing their weekly 100-mile mail run between Savoonga and Gambell on remote St Lawrence Island (which is only 36 miles from the easternmost tip of Russia), sometimes in blinding snowstorms with visibility of no more than 3m and temperatures of -40C.

Nellie Lawing, a famous frontierswoman who was postmistress at Kenai Lake on the mainland in the 1920s, became famous after she saved a dog-sled mail carrier in a blizzard.

‘It grew dark and no mail sled,’ she wrote in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie. ‘About 8 o’clock I put on my snowshoes, I hitched up a dog team and started for the pass. When I reached the summit, I found the freezing mail carrier lying along the railroad cut.

‘I carried him back to my cabin, thawed out his hands and feet, wrapped him in blankets, and then went on with the mail to the next station, where a train had waited hours for the mail.

‘It was an 18-mile round trip, and when I got back at daylight the mail carrier was still sleeping off the effects of his close escape.’

Dogs in Canada

Dog teams also routinely operated during winter months in northwest Canada, and they were never more important than during the gold rush in the Klondike region of the Yukon in 1896-99.

With 100,000 prospectors having rushed to the area, the postal service was overwhelmed. Mailbags piled up waiting for transport, stamps were rationed to two per person, and those who could afford it would pay others to queue at post offices on their behalf.

Postmasters were harangued by angry customers desperate for contact with the outside world, few of whom seemed to appreciate the hardships faced by the dog sleds hauling the mail through snow storms. No sled was supposed to carry more than 400lb in weight, but many did, and the heavy loads exhausted the dogs.

The Alaskan malamute was widely regarded as the best breed for the job, although the Newfoundland and the St Bernard were also popular.

Dogs in California

Much further south, a black-and-white collie was employed to run letters between two mining camps during California’s silver rush in the 1880s, achieving local fame as ‘Dorsey the mail dog’.

The service started by accident. The postmaster at Calico, Everett Stacey, used to take Dorsey with him whenever he took the steep rocky trail to visit his brother Alwin, who ran the general store at Bismarck, 1½ miles away. One day when Everett couldn’t go, he sent Dorsey off with an urgent message tied around his neck, and the dutiful dog returned the next day with a reply.

Before he knew it, the collie had been recruited as a regular mail carrier, with a letters pouch made specially to be strapped to his back. ‘He is immensely popular with the miners,’ reported the San Francisco Chronicle in January 1886, ‘and every evening they order an extra beefsteak for the canine carrier.’

Dogs in Australia

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