The Star Route Service

Mail Afloat

weathered five-gallon red and white steel mail pail
This five-gallon steel mail pail represents a mail transfer system used on the Detroit River. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Museum

“I’m Jim Burns the mailman, they drop down the pail, I put in the mail, I’m Jim Burns the mailman.”
—Sung to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man by Jim Burns, Captain, JW Westcott II

Hear the song in this short video

Founded in 1874, by Captain J.W. Westcott, the J.W. Westcott Company began making mid-river mail transfers with a rowboat in 1895. Over time, the company used a series of boats to provide the Great Lake region with mail service. Today, the JW Westcott II carries on the legacy of mail by pail on the Detroit River, serving Great Lakes freighters with 6,000 transfers a year.

This weathered five-gallon steel mail pail represents the only opportunity that the crew of the Sylvania had to send or receive mail while afloat. The steamer lowered the pail to a smaller mail vessel to drop off and pick up mail. The Sylvania was one of hundreds of ships that used this unusual mail transfer system on the Detroit River.

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J.W. Westcott II mailboat. Courtesy of Friends of the Mailboat

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The Sylvania is greeted by the mailboat, JW Westcott II, for a mid-river mail transfer. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Museum