On June 17, 1895, under Postmaster John J. Enright, a postal service was inaugurated in Detroit with the first delivery made on June 19th. There is no evidence of a special cancel available for that first delivery since a two-week trial had been agreed on..... but, it was unique then, as it is today.
The Detroit River Post Office Station is the ONLY postal unit known in the world devoted exclusively to the delivery of mail to vessels that are UNDER WAY.
During the months when the Detroit River is navigable (from the first week in April to mid-December), the Mail Boat, operating out of the River Station at the foot of 24th Street, delivers mail addressed to those on board passing ships and picks up outgoing mail from them., The little Mail Boat rides alongside the big ships as they move up or down river. Mail from the ships is lowered to the Mail Boat in a pail fastened to a rope; deliveries made to the ships are hauled aboard using the same process.
During the WWII years, station numbers were assigned to all stations to help facilitate mail sorting by the inexperienced clerks ,who replaced regular workers ,due to the draft, etc.. Detroit River Station received #22. When ZIP CODES were introduced in 1963, the River Station was assigned it’s own exclusive ZIP CODE – 48222. The Detroit River Station was a fully functioning post office; it had a Superintendent and up to eight “carriers” assigned on a full-time seasonal basis. Since ships pass at all times of the day or night and every day of the week, The Station was manned seven days a week and 24 hours a day or “24/7” in today’s parlance.
The Mail Boat is not owned by the USPS. It’s services are obtained by government contract with private owners. The first mail boat, in 1895, was the “FLORENCE B”- owned and operated by Charles F. Bielman. At that time, the Mail Boat operated from the foot of Bates Street, one block east of Woodward Avenue. The DETROIT MARINE STATION was housed in a building used by the Detroit & Windsor Ferry Company. Here, the mail was processed for delivery to ships as they passed.
In the days of the “FLORENCE B”, mail was delivered somewhat differently than at the present time. Deliveries were not made directly from the Mail Boat. Instead, the “FLORENCE B”, when it went out to contact a passing vessel, towed a man in a rowboat directly into the path of the oncoming ship…and left him there. Using oars, the carrier in the rowboat avoided being run down but stayed close enough so that as the ship passed, he could throw a line aboard. This was made fast and the rowboat was jerked along against the ships’s side. Mail was then transferred up in a bucket on a line. Outgoing mail was lowered in the same pail; the rowboat was cast loose. The “FLORENCE B” came around to pick it up. Today, the Mail Boat snuggles up to a ship’s side, maintaining the same speed, while transfers are made.
The “FLORENCE B” was in operation from 1895 to 1907 and then followed by the “C.F.BIELMAN” until 1932. In those days, contracts ran from July 1st of one year through June 30th of the next year. The “G.F.BECKER” assumed the job and carried mail from 1932 – 1936. Next came the “O.F.MOOK” from 1936 to 1946. When Mr. Mook died in an onshore accident, the “G.F.BECKER” took over until the contract expired in 1948.
It was on July 1, 1948 that the J. W. Westcott Company won the contract using the “J.W.WESTCOTT” as the Mail Boat. In 1949, the company replaced her with a new craft, the “J.W.WESTCOTT II”. As of this writing, she is still operating as Detroit’s Mail Boat.
During 1900, the MARINE STATION was moved from it’s original location to the foot of First Street, in a part of the old Michigan Central building. About five years later, the office was moved across the street to the old Wayne Hotel overlooking the river. In 1928, the operating point was moved to the foot of 12th Street. It remained there until 1948. It was during this period…1928 to 1948…that mail was actually sorted on the boats and the Mail Boat became a truly “FLOATING POST OFFICE.”
In 1948, the RIVER STATION was moved back to the foot of First Street near the WESTCOTT Co. headquarters, when they took over the mail contract. The station moved again in 1954, for a brief period, into the fireboat station at the foot of 24th Street. Finally, in 1955, new quarters were built next door and mail was no longer sorted on the boat itself, but was readied in advance at the station for delivery. The same procedure is followed now.
In it’s first year of operations, the Mail Boat handled 47,000 pieces of mail/parcels. By the mid 50’s, the total was up over 2,000,000 pieces a year. What with larger ships (fewer total); smaller crews; modern ship-to-shore telecommunications and on-board computers, the volume is down to one-tenth of what it was.
Over the years, the distinctive Mail Boat has gained an international reputation and attracts visitors from near and far. The service it provides is considered to be in the finest tradition of the U.S. Postal Service. The Detroit Post Office is very proud of the Mail Boat’s long record of achievement and the cry, “Here comes the Mail Boat” will continue to be heard for years to come on passing vessels plowing their courses up and down the Detroit River.
In 1962, The MOTOR CITY STAMP & COVER CLUB prepared cachets for the Mail Boat’s Season Opening Day ceremonies. It replicated a cachet sponsored by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Stamp Club…in 1932…the first official philatelic recognition awarded to the Detroit River Station and it’s Mail Boat.
Each year since 1962, the MCSCC has sponsored covers for both OPENING and CLOSING DAY ceremonies. (The station doesn’t actually close. It remains open on reduced hours. Only ship operations cease until the river is ice free).
The MCSCC is recognized by the J.W.WESTCOTT Co. as their official cachet sponsors, even though other groups have sponsored cachets on an irregular basis. The company has adopted one of our cachets as their logo and uses it on the company stationary. A complete collection of covers, produced by the MCSCC in honor of this unique mail service, is displayed at the River Station.
The MCSCC is proud of the role they have played in continuing to familiarize this mail delivery service. The USPS has provided more prestige by providing special pictorial cancels authorized for use only on Opening and/or Closing Days.
Under the General Managership of James Hogan (Grandson of the founder), the station provides a wide range of services, as well as delivering the mail. It is a common sight to see ship stores, food, spare parts, laundry, tobacco products, candy, lake and river charts, postal stamps and stationery, oil and lubricants, equipment needing repair, household goods…even pets being put on board ships. As a transfer point, seamen on leave embark or disembark via a Jacob’s ladder. Great Lakes pilots, required on all foreign vessels, also use it as a transfer point. All in all, the Detroit River Station is a very busy place.