Ever wondered how a letter gets delivered in the depths of the Grand Canyon or the snowy Alaskan tundra? Or how early airplane pilots found their way cross-country in the dark? Two new exhibits in the National Postal Museum’s transportation-themed “Moving the Mail” gallery shed light on the complex transportation web used to move the mail from one point to another. “Networking a Nation: The Star Route Service” opens Feb. 21 and features a full-size semi truck cab-cutaway, allowing visitors to gain a new perspective on transportation from behind the cab’s steering wheel. “Airmail in America” opens Feb. 22, the 85th anniversary of the day one pilot single-handedly saved airmail service from elimination by Congress.
More than 150 years ago, postal officials tried a new approach to expand the nation’s mail service. The Post Office Department hired contractors to serve the new routes and allowed them to use any form of transportation to carry the mail. Snowshoes, mules, canoes, trucks, dogsleds and stagecoaches are just a few of the ways mail has been carried across America’s valleys, mountains, rivers and highways along this network—known as “Star Routes”—ever since.
“Star Routes” got their name because legislation establishing the new mail service called for contractors to carry the mail with “celerity, certainty, and security.” Weary of repeatedly writing these words in ledgers, postal clerks substituted three asterisks “* * *” and the phrase “Star Route” was born. “Star Routes” were renamed “Highway Contract Routes” in 1970, but they are still known by their original name today.
“Airmail in America” highlights the critical role of the postal system in the creation of America’s commercial aviation industry, as well as the pilots and aircraft that made it possible. Today, airmail is such an integral part of the way mail is moved in the United States that it’s hard to believe Congress almost shut it down. Even more extraordinary is the story of how one man—airmail pilot Jack Knight—dared to fly the mail through dark, stormy weather in the middle of the night between Omaha and Chicago. With this flight, Knight saved the airmail service by proving to a skeptical Congress that it could travel night and day.
Airmail pilots were expected to fly in the face of challenges that other pilots could refuse. They had to maintain the flight schedule, regardless of the weather. Of the more than 200 pilots hired between 1918 and 1926, 34 died flying the mail. With such odds against them, the airmail service gained an ominous nickname among aviators as a “Suicide Club” for flyers.
Through these and other stories of adventure, bravado and mishaps, visitors will discover the importance of airmail throughout the history of aviation. The museum’s circa-1920s airmail beacon and three vintage airmail planes—the first airplane to carry mail, the 1911 Wiseman-Cooke; the “workhorse of the airmail service, the 1919 de Havilland; and a 1936 Stinson-Reliant airmail pick-up aircraft—will remain on display in the new exhibit. Additional items to be displayed include a vintage leather flight suit and goggles worn by “Suicide Club” pilot Eddie Gardner, flight schedules, model planes and a log book belonging to Max Miller, the first postal pilot.
Support for “Networking a Nation: The Star Route Service” was provided by Alan Ritchey, Inc. and Freightliner Trucks.
About Alan Ritchey, Inc.
Alan Ritchey, Inc. began in 1963 and has its roots in mail transportation and agriculture. Today, ARI is comprised of three diversified divisions: Transportation, Mail Transportation Equipment Service Center and Martindale Feed Mill.
About Freightliner Trucks
Freightliner Trucks is a division of the Freightliner Group, headquartered in Portland, Ore., and is the leading heavy-duty truck manufacturer in North America. The Freightliner Group produces and markets Class 3-8 vehicles and is a company of DaimlerChrysler, the world’s largest commercial vehicle manufacturer.
About the National Postal Museum
The National Postal Museum is devoted to presenting the colorful and engaging history of the nation’s mail service and showcasing the largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps and philatelic material in the world. It is located at 2 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., in the Old City Post Office Building across from Union Station. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information visit the museum’s Web site at postalmuseum.si.edu.
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