TNB Night Owl – Owney the Postal Dog

Railway Mail Service Clerks and Owney the Postal Dog. Photo provide by Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

The happiest dogs in the world are the dogs with a job to do. It gives them focus and meaning, a sense of purpose and service. One such dog was Owney, who in his time is reputed to have been the most famous dog in America. Owney belonged to a postal employee in Albany, New York, who regularly brought the dog to work with him in the 1880s. (This was in the days when many parents sent their own children off to work). Owney, according to many sources, loved the smell of mailbags and anyone associated with mailbags. He’d lay on full mailbags until they were loaded on wagons or trains to be transported to other post offices in other towns and cities.

In 1888, the border terrier mix was left behind at the Albany post office when his owner resigned the postal service for a different vocation. Some sources claim the man knew that Owney would be happier staying with the mailbags, while other sources say the departing postal worker abandoned his dog: hard to say which is true at this late date.

Auspiciously for Owney, the other employees were fond of him and made the pooch the mascot of the Albany station of the United States Railway Mail Service. (RMS was a division of the US Postal Service from 1869 onward. Renamed the Postal Transportation Service post-war, rail service declined beginning in the 1950s until the last of the railway post offices was closed in 1977.)

One story of Owney’s early days on the job recounts how he began going with the mailbags when they left on wagons for nearby towns. When a bag fell off a wagon en route to its destination, Owney jumped off and guarded the bag, not allowing anyone near it until the wagon driver realized both bag and dog were missing and came back for them.

Having proved his worth and dependability, Owney was next allowed to accompany mailbags on trains. His postal coworkers got him a collar and a dog tag with his name and home station on it. He would depart with his mailbags in various directions from Albany, headed to Boston, or New York City, or Buffalo and further west. RMS workers would route him through with his bags to their destination, then assign other bags to him and send him on his way to another destination or back to Albany, if they had mailbags headed there.

Oftentimes, workers would attach an additional dog tag to Owneys collar, sort of like a souvenir travel bumper sticker but probably also as a fond way of saying, “he’s our mascot, too”. As he travelled around the nation (and Canada as well) Owney became famous through newspaper and magazine articles, as well as books. He had become a celebrity, nationwide. In 1893, he was named “Best Traveled Dog” by the Los Angeles Kennel Club and awarded a medal.

Owney collected so many tags, trinkets, and medals that they appeared to be a burden. Concerned coworkers began forwarding excess tags to Albany for storage so the small dog wouldn’t have to carry them on his collar all at once. Ultimately, he would collect hundreds and perhaps more than one thousand pieces.

In response, Postmaster General John Wanamaker, who was a dog lover, declared Owney the Official Mascot of the Rail Mail Service and gave him a specially made coat to display his collection of tags and medals. It was said that Owney jingled when he walked.

The terrier ” Owney ” travels from one end of the country to the other in the postal cars, tagged through, petted, talked to, looked out for, as a brother, almost. But sometimes, no matter what the attention, he suddenly departs for the south, the east, or the west, and is not seen again for months. He will defend a mail sack against all comers, — except the regular clerks. There is hardly a part of the United States or Canada which he has not visited. He will ride in nothing but a postal car. About a year ago he suddenly disappeared for several months. The postal clerks regretfully observed that he was probably dead; but one day he turned up on the Boston and Albany line with an ear gone. He had been caught in a railroad accident in Canada.

The Story Of Our Post Office by Marshall Cushing, 1893

In 1895, Owney departed from Tacoma, Washington, along with the international mail and travelled around the world. He was gone four months while (according to the Los Angeles Times) visiting Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, before returning to the U.S. via New York City. He was now not only the most famous dog in America, but also in the world.

His fame might have been his undoing, however. In 1897, a postal employee in Toledo chained Owney to a post in the basement of the post office and called a reporter to come get an exclusive story. Some sources say that Owney had become tempermental and aggressive in his old age, and bit the postal employee while said employee was showing the journalist his many tags. Another source says Owney also attacked the reporter. In all likelihood, the postal employee probably mistreated the dog and received predictable results. The story becomes even more muddled at this point. Either a policeman was called immediately and shot Owney dead, or Owney was later ordered put down. Still another source claims the postal worker died from the dog bite, leaving a widow and infant son behind. It’s very difficult to know what actually happened, as this was the age of yellow journalism.

What is known for certain, is that postal workers from across the nation took up a collection and had a taxidermist preserve Owney. He was kept at USPS headquarters in Washinton, DC, until 1911 at which time he moved to the Smithsonian. Today he is a centerpiece of the National Postal Museum, one of the several Smithsonian institutions in the nation’s capitol.

On 2011, the USPS issued the Owney the Postal Dog commemorative Forever stamp.

In 2012, the National Postal Museum made available a free eBook and iPad app for called “Owney: Tales from the Rails”, which is narrated (and performed) by Trace Adkins.

Question of the night:  Would you favor a return to popular train travel instead of air travel?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
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