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Harbor Mail Boat Service

Boat unloading mail in New York Harbor
Boat unloading mail in New York Harbor

At the turn of the century the harbor of New York bustled with docking ocean liners, but the majority of these steamers didn't have any foreign mail aboard when they tied up. It had been offloaded miles away and hours before. Beginning in 1897, incoming liners were met at the Quarantine Station in New York Bay, where they were detained for health inspection. There, while health officials examined the passengers and crew, the steamships were relieved of the mail.

The foreign mail, which had been sorted and sacked on the high seas for distribution in the United States, was literally dumped into the hold of a special mail vessel. Then it was hastily shipped to shore where it was forwarded directly to the city post office, loaded aboard waiting railway mail cars, or transferred to other steamships. This novel service was established on July 1, 1897. Initially, the steamer Peekskill, operated under contract to the Post Office Department by the Starin Transportation Lines, was the backbone of this service.

Later, the mail tender Postmaster General was used in place of the Peekskill. But, by September 1909 the Harbor Boat Service had grown to such proportions that an additional boat was required. Up to that time the Postmaster General had been almost exclusively used to meet incoming European ocean liners. However, the number of steamships plying the European routes made it impossible for a single mail tender to keep pace with the mail traffic.

Mail boat unloading mail from ocean liner
Mail boat unloading mail from ocean liner

When the second boat, the 167 foot President, was subsequently added mail from incoming South American, as well as European ocean liners, was picked up. Postal officials were extremely pleased with the performance of the boat mail service. Having more than one mail ship made a big difference. In addition to handling the South American mails, if a transatlantic steamer arrived with a heavy mail load it could be served by both mail boats.

When the second boat, the 167 foot President, was subsequently added mail from incoming South American, as well as European ocean liners, was picked up. Postal officials were extremely pleased with the performance of the boat mail service. Having more than one mail ship made a big difference. In addition to handling the South American mails, if a transatlantic steamer arrived with a heavy mail load it could be served by both mail boats. 

The mail could be separated on the steamship so that mails destined for New York City could be dumped onto the tender, while the mails for other destinations in the United States could be offloaded onto the second boat.

Mail transferred from a liner down a chute to a harbor mail boat
Mail was transferred from the liner down a chute to the harbor mail boat.

The mails for New York, for example, were sacked for 44 stations in the city and additional breakdowns for other destinations also were made in accordance with a schedule which included 128 distinct separations. 

Harbor Boat Service was suspended April 20, 1917 due to the first World War. Limited service was resumed on April 1, 1921. This time the harbor boats were operated under contract with the New York Central Railroad Company. Following the reintroduction of the service the operating base of the harbor mails was moved to Pier 72, North River. This pier was served by train tracks so that railway mail cars could be brought right to the docking area. 

Harbor Boat Service was terminated on April 15, 1937. Changes in public health practices made it unnecessary for most of the ocean steamships to be boarded by health inspectors at Quarantine.

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