By Linda Cole
Last July, the U.S. Postal Service honored a little dog named Owney with his very own forever stamp. Owney the Mail Dog was a terrier-mix stray who made his home at the Albany, New York post office and served nine years as the ‘unofficial mascot’ of the U.S. Railway Mail Service. The stamp recognizes Owney’s steadfast loyalty to the mail service. This is a cool interactive stamp and when it’s held up to your computer webcam, you can see Owney barking and running. He was indeed a special dog, and his story is worth retelling so we don’t forget how extraordinary dogs can be.
It was in the day when trains and wagons carried the mail and at the peak of the Railway Mail Service. In 1888, a scraggly looking dog was abandoned by his owner who had been working in the Albany post office. The other mail clerks liked having Owney around and decided to adopt him. He became their unofficial mascot, and made himself at home among the mailbags.
The little dog wasn’t content to live out his days inside the post office, however. He apparently enjoyed traveling and decided it was his job to ride along with the mailbags to guard them. To make sure no one mistook Owney the Mail Dog as a stray or in the event he became lost, the Albany mail clerks gave him a collar with “Owney, Albany Post Office, New York” written on it.
One story recounts a day when they feared Owney was lost. He followed mail that was taken off a train and loaded onto a wagon. It was headed to one of the local post offices. The wagon and mail arrived, but Owney couldn’t be found. Some clerks went back over the route and discovered him patiently waiting on a mail bag that had fallen off the wagon!
Owney rode the rails across the country guarding the mail. During that time, train wrecks were common and he soon gained a reputation as a good luck charm because no trains were ever involved in a wreck when he was aboard. His reputation began to grow and drew the interest of newspapermen. As he crossed the country, clerks began to attach tags to his collar to show where he had been. He was getting so many tags, the Postmaster General, John Wanamaker, had a special harness made for Owney’s tags to help reduce the weight of the tags around his neck. By 1895, he had become so famous that he was invited to make appearances at dog shows and became a world traveler making a 129-day publicity tour sailing on the Northern Pacific mail steamer, the “Victoria.”
Owney’s date of birth and his exact age was never known, but his death was documented. As he grew older, his behavior changed as his health deteriorated. In 1897, he bit a mail clerk and when a deputy U.S. marshal went to investigate what happened, an angry Owney attacked him and the marshal shot him. When mail clerks around the country heard what had happened to their good luck charm, they raised enough money to have him preserved by a taxidermist. He was put on display at the U.S. Post Office Department in Washington D.C. and moved to the Smithsonian Institution in 1912. In 1993, the Postal Museum was opened and Owney was moved one last time.
Dogs have been by our side for centuries and history is filled with wonderful, entertaining and sad stories about man’s best friend from around the world. History is a documented account of past events, but just like anything else, rumors and contrived stories are mixed in with the truth. Owney the Mail Dog’s story is no different. As Smithsonian researchers dug through old newspaper clippings and accounts about Owney’s life, one misconception was debunked. Evidently, he was never a stray dog and he didn’t just happen to wander into the Albany Post Office one day, cold and starving.
For nine years, Owney protected mail bags on wagons and mail trains, traveling more than 140,000 miles by rail. That’s not even talking about his world wide trip. No one really knows why Owney was attracted to the mail bags or why he insisted on riding with the mail. There was apparently a scent on the bags he liked. Or maybe he just liked getting out of the post office and seeing the sights. In the long run, the “why” doesn’t matter because he brought smiles to the people he met throughout his journeys.
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