Delivering U.S. Mail by Horse, Air and Water

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on December 6, 2008
Courtesy of Steve Hakala A 1939 Grumman Goose seaplane is unloaded in remote Akutan, Alaska.

Charlie Chamberlain, 59, sits atop his horse, cautiously leading a train of 16 pack mules down a dusty, narrow trail of the Grand Canyon, delivering mail to Supai, Ariz., a village at the canyon’s bottom. Chamberlain forgoes the typical blue U.S. Postal Service outfit, instead choosing clothes—jeans, boots, chaps and a cowboy hat—more suited to the 8-mile, two-and-a-half hour trek to the bottom.

Of the 148 million places the Postal Service delivers mail, the Supai Post Office is arguably the most remote, distant and dangerous.

“You’re working with livestock on narrow trails with dangerous drop-offs,” says Chamberlain, whose mules each carry around 150 pounds of everything from food to furniture to first-class mail. “You can get bucked off. If a rattlesnake is coiled up on the trail, you have to take care of it.”

When he’s not dealing with dangerous reptiles, he’s keeping an eye on flash flooding. “I had to get off the trail one summer when the water got 20 feet high,” he says. “I got the team to high ground, and water still came up to my stirrups.”

Chamberlain, who’s operated the route for 28 years, is one of a half-dozen regular Postal Service subcontractors—known as packers—who deliver mail to the village of 500.

His typical workday begins at 4 a.m., feeding and watering mules and horses on his 2-acre Supai ranch. By 8:15 a.m., he’s riding up the canyon to the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead, a paved parking lot 3,000 feet above Supai.

At the trailhead, Chamberlain and five other packers meet a mail truck carrying around 8,000 pounds of deliveries slated for Supai. Packers load their mules with items the village needs for its small school, general store and restaurant. “Christmas trees, ice cream—I’ve carried just about everything at one time or another,” he says.

Once the packers reach the canyons bottom, they unload at the Supai Post Office, which opened in 1896.

“We start looking out the door for the mule train at about 1:30,” says Tim Uqualla, 52, manager of the Havasupai Trading Co. General Store. “The mule train brings most everything we need—meat, produce, milk.”

The Havasupai Indians have inhabited the Grand Canyon for 800 years, and Supai serves as the capital of the Havasupai Reservation. The village has grown into a tourist attraction, drawing 20,000 annual visitors who hike or helicopter in for a stay at a 100-site campground or a 24-room lodge.

“I get to meet people from all over the world who come here,” says Chamberlain, whose son Brian, 35, also is a packer. “The canyon has a different look to it every day, the way the light changes. I get to work outdoors in the most beautiful place in the world.”

By air
Up to 10 times a day, Alaskan pilot Steve Hakala, 40, loads his 1939 Grumman Goose, an amphibious seaplane, with up to 1,800 pounds of everything from letters to, literally, kitchen sinks. Hakala makes daily deliveries from Unalaska (pop. 4,347) to Akutan (pop. 771), home to a fish processing plant, an 18-student school, and a 4,000-foot volcano that periodically spits out ash and steam. Although Hakala’s 30-mile flight to Akutan has its perils, the most dangerous part of his mail route is landing his seaplane on 3-foot waves with swirling 25-knot winds.

“You really have to be on your game when you’re landing a plane on the water at 90 knots,” he says. “There can be floating debris, and the occasional sea lion will pop up in front of you, which could really ruin your day.”

Demetri Tcheripanoff meets the airplane at a concrete ramp near the waters edge to shuttle the mail to the Akutan Post Office using an all-terrain vehicle with a trailer. Hakala’s arrival brings out curious onlookers. “When the plane pulls up, people come to see what he brings,” Tcheripanoff says. “It’s still exciting to see who and what is coming on the island.”

“This job was a natural progression for me,” says Hakala, who’s been delivering mail by airplane since 1994, and running his current route the last five years. “My grandfather was a pilot, my dad was a pilot, I got my first plane when I was 15.”

Hakala works year-round on a seven-days-on/seven-days-off schedule, and spends his working week in Unalaska, 800 miles from his wife and two sons in Peter’s Creek.

“We’re very appreciated for what we do, and that’s a good feeling,” he says. “I get to fly planes in Alaska for a living. I have a good gig.”

By water
In 1874, John Ward Westcott first rowed his small boat out onto Michigans Detroit River to deliver documents and messages – at 25 cents each – to passing ships.

Today, 134 years and four generations of the same family later, the J.W. Westcott Co. – now with 20 employees  – continues to deliver mail to the 8,000 commercial ships that pass through the 32-mile-long river between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, each year.

“We’re the link to land for freighters from all over the world,” says Jim Hogan, Westcott’s great-grandson and the company president. “And we’re a link to the past as well.”

While computer-screen maps now track incoming ships, the delivery method hasn’t changed much over the years.

“We still pull up next to the freighter with one of our boats, and one of their crew members use a rope to lower down a bucket,” says Hogan, 52. “It’s basically how my great-grandfather did it.”

In 1963, the company’s main vessel, the 45-foot J.W. Westcott II, became the first ship in the nation with its own ZIP code, 48222. Letters mailed to ships that pass through the Detroit River simply need to be addressed with the crew member’s name, and the ship’s name and ZIP code.

From the river’s spring ice breakup (usually the first week in April) to the winter freeze-up in mid-December, the J.W. Westcott II makes up to 30 mail deliveries each day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For large deliveries, like engine parts or large grocery orders, freighters use cranes to lift cargo nets from the mail boat.

The J.W. Westcott Co. stores mail at a building along the river near downtown Detroit. When a ship’s captain is within an hour or so of passing through the area, he radios the company to inquire whether his vessel has any mail or other items to be delivered. The order is then loaded on the J.W. Westcott II, which is piloted alongside the receiving vessel, which can range from a small tugboat to a 1,000-foot Norwegian ore carrier.

“Everyone loves to see the mail boat,” says John Sarns, a relief captain for the American Steamship Co. “A lot of the boats have satellite Internet now. But you can’t send cookies through the Internet. We’ll get pizza when there’s a bad cook on board. The mail boat is a great tradition with a great history.”

The history certainly is not lost on Hogan, who started working for his dad on the J.W. Westcott II in 1974. “The tradition didn’t mean as much to me when I was younger,” he says. “But now I realize how important it is, even for me individually, to keep this going. It would be nice to get rich. But when I think about it, I realize I’m getting rich in a way others cant.”