Inside the Nome Post Office

Excerpts from "Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900"
by Fred Lockley

The postoffice was open to the public from 8 a.m. until midnight each weekday, Sunday having somewhat shorter hours. As we could not look through the cases while they were in use, we would report at 12 o'clock at night and look through the general delivery until 6 a.m., when we would go to our tent, prepare and eat our breakfast, and at 8 o'clock, or later, start on our delivery. We were usually through by noontime. We frequently did not get to sleep until 8 or 9 o'clock, thus getting only three or four hours' sleep out of the twenty-four, so the postmaster told us not to report until 4 a.m. The night force, whose duty it was to work on the lists of "forwarded letters," "returned to writer," and "advertised" letters, worked as they found opportunity on our books, getting out mail for our patrons.

when more than one mail steamer arrived, as they frequently did, on the same day, or within a day or two of each other, we would put in long hours. For instance, we reported one morning at 4 o'clock at the paper tent, for after the first few weeks a large tent was put up near the postoffice in which the papers were cased by a night crew, a day force being on duty to hand them out. We worked out several sacks of papers from the cases between 4 a.m. and 6. We spent the forenoon in making a letter and paper delivery; at noon, the mail was landed from a steamer which had arrived from Seattle. We worked all afternoon looking through the newly arrived mail. Before we had finished all the pouches of "outside" mail, the "Dora" from St. Michael's arrived with several sacks of local mail, that is, Alaska mail, including Dawson and other Yukon River points. By the time we had completed the "Dora's" mail it was supper time. The acting postmaster took both carriers to his boarding place, and served us a regular banquet, including ice cream made from condensed milk. We went back to the office, routed our mail in the paper tent, and at 10:30 p.m. we started on our delivery. We were through by midnight. It did not seem so out of place to be making a midnight delivery where the daylight was continuous, and where the streets were as crowded at midnight as noonday, as it would seem at home where night-time implies darkness. From 4 a.m. until midnight--a work-day of twenty hours. Of course, this was exceptional, although on several occasions we worked eighteen or twenty hours. Usually, however, from ten to twelve hours constituted our day's work.

Whenever we had leisure on account of the non-arrival of mail steamers, we would go to the paper tent and work out papers. We built a delivery wagon from a pair of bicycle wheels mounted on a narrow steel axle, surmounted by a large drygoods box. Putting several hundred pounds of papers routed in bundles of convenient size, we would make a paper delivery several times a week. I remember one day when the rains had commenced and the streets were knee deep in mud. We were both pulling the cart when it got in a mud hole up to the hubs. We were tugging away to extricate it when a man, probably a newspaper correspondent, came up to us and said, "Hold on just a moment, boys, I want to get a picture of Nome's free delivery bogged down." He called to the proprietor of the Arctic Pharmacy who took a snap shot of us.

We often wished our comrades in the service could take a glance at us as we routed our mail. As there was no room in the postoffice we took it to our tent across Snake River. In lieu of a table and case we sat cross-legged on the sand and gravel floor of our tent, and would use gold pans, boxes and other makeshifts as substitutes for a case. For a routing table we would use our cots. If one made an inadvertent move the carefully laid piles of letters would, with one accord, slide toward the center of the cot, and I would find the mail for the Custom House genially fraternizing with that of the Gold Belt Dance Hall, or the S.Y.T. Co. gravely intermingling with the mail for the Yukon Saloon.

It took but a day or two for the knowledge that a free delivery had been established to become known and appreciated. Orders for the delivery of mail poured in by the score. We had to "book" them, place each new name in our route book, alphabetically arrange and verify the address given so as to place it in its proper position on our route map, and then get their mail from the general delivery. We soon had about twelve hundred patrons apiece, and, in addition to remembering their names so that we could take the letters for them from the incoming mail as we rapidly glanced at each letter before we passed it on to the box clerk, or casing clerk, we had to keep track of the changes of address which were constantly occurring.