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Moving Mail on Rivers and Lakes

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map showing both U.S. river and rail routes in 1860 on display in the museum
In this gallery, the museum displays a map showing both U.S. river and rail routes in 1860.

In the early 1800s, the postal service relied heavily on riverboat traffic to extend mail service to the South and West. Even the best roads in these areas of the country were poor. In 1823, Congress declared all steamboat routes to be post roads, subject to federal regulations. 

Although steamboats provided the most reliable and rapid transport of the mails the service was far from spectacular. Weather and accidents delayed service, and steamboat captains found it hard to stick to the regular schedules demanded in postal contracts. The financial rewards of the mail contracts were often not worth the inconvenience. A typical ship might receive $4.00 for carrying the mail 150 miles, the same price as a cabin passenger's ticket. Captains also diverted money from the postal coffers by carrying mail privately for a fee. 

model of a paddle wheel steamer in the museum
Built in 1850, The Buckeye State paddle wheel steamer traveled between Cleveland and Buffalo. This model of that steamer is displayed in the museum.

Speed was important for all aspects of transportation, including mail. Steamboats often vied for record speeds. On its first trip out of the docks on May 1st, The Buckeye State reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a record 43 hours later, beating the record of Telegraph No. 2, which had made the same trip in 44 hours, 47 minutes three years before.