Excerpts from "Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900"
by Fred Lockley
We went up to the postoffice to get our mail. We took our place at the foot of a double line more than a block long, and during two hours that we stood in line, I learned that business men, not being able to spare two hours to obtain their mail, would pay some one to stand in line for them, or do without it until they could spare the time. A sudden inspiration came to me. How it would shorten that long line, and how greatly it would lessen the congestion of the mail if a business delivery of mail were established. I suggested it to my partner, but he told me it could not be done, as Nome was only a fourth-class postoffice. However, I thought it worth trying, so we walked around to the back door of a little shanty that was doing duty as a postoffice, and knocked. Our knock was answered by a kindly-eyed, gray-haired gentleman, who in response to my inquiry, told me the postmaster was in the States, but that he was in charge of the office. To him I stated my suggestion, namely, the establishment of a free delivery service. He invited us in, asked us a few searching questions relative to postal work, ascertained we were letter carriers on leave of absence, and told us to report for duty as soon as we had eaten dinner.
On our way to our camp we had to pass several alluring signs which dwelt on the merits of the dinner served within at prices ranging from two dollars and a half to five dollars. I remember one which quoted T-bone steak at three dollars and a half; another, spring chicken at five dollars. We resisted their blandishments, and ate pork, beans and coffee at our own camp. We had each brought an old uniform, thinking it would do to mine in, so, putting on our old gray suits, we went back to the office.
Mr. Clum, during our absence, had prepared for each of a typewritten letter as follows:
Taking our notebooks, we started down Front Street to get the names of our patrons. One of the first places I entered was a restaurant. I stated my errand. The proprietor, a woman, looked incredulous, and asked, "How much are you going to tax me to bring my mail?" I told her it would be a free delivery, and no charge whatever, as the Government was paying me five dollars a day for my services. "Free Delivery! Now wouldn't that paralyze you!" she exclaimed incredulously. "Going to bring us our letters around for nothing. Well God bless Uncle Sam. That is the only thing I ever heard of in this camp that was free." Almost without exception the people offered to pay for having their mail delivered, and could scarcely credit the fact of having service rendered without cost.
The inspector had told us of the condition that existed at Dawson in the early days of the stampede there, where one was almost compelled to show the color of his money to get attention. "For the credit of the service, boys, we want no grafting here," he said, and I may say right here that his request was complied with. Not only that, but it so happened that neither my comrade, Ben Taylor, nor myself smoked or drank. This fact was a constant source of astonishment to our patrons. We had dozens of saloons on our routes. As soon as I had taken the list of names to be delivered, or later, whenever I would bring the mail, the invariable query would be, "Well, what will you take?" "Thanks, I don't care for anything," I would respond. "Take a couple of cigars then," and the barkeeper would produce a box of his best. "What! you don't smoke either," he would exclaim in astonishment as I declined the proffered cigars. One man insisted that I take something, and feeling a little thirsty, and not wishing to appear discourteous, I said, "Very well, I will take a drink of boiled water if you happen to have one handy." The look of scorn that came over his face. He paused, studying me, evidently to see if I was in earnest, and then said, as though loath to believe the evidence of his senses, "Did you say 'boiled water?' Such stock as that on the shelves to choose from, and ask for boiled water! Say, I have run up against all sorts of people and a few other sorts in my time, but you, you more than take the cake; you take the whole bakery. However, it's up to you to nominate your poison, so boiled water goes," and he poured me a beer glass of boiled water. I did not repeat the experiment; that was my first and last drink. Thereafter, I kindly but firmly declined all liquid refreshments. I did not want the population to turn out en masse to gaze upon me as a freak, if not of the first water, at least of boiled water.
We spent the afternoon in getting the names and locations of our patrons, and in arranging them in numerical and alphabetical order. Next morning we reported at the postoffice, and were given several pouches of letters which had been taken from the cases to make room for later mail. Breakfast was just over in the little back kitchen, so we cleared the table and used it and the floor upon which to sort the letters, and get out those belonging to our patrons. Chairs being a minus quantity (they were pressed into service in the register and money order department when not in use in the kitchen), we improvised seats from rolls of paper. We had to abandon the table presently to allow dinner preparations to get under way. In a little room about 12 x 12 eleven clerks were working. It was a case of standing room only. This condition, however, was soon remedied by taking out the partition and removing the kitchen to a tent. We found letters for some of our patrons that had been there for months. Some individuals would have a dozen letters. The paper mail had not been opened, as there were o facilities for handling it. In consequence, several tons of second, third and fourth-class matter had accumulated. We worked until 11 p.m. looking through the accumulations of old letters and getting out mail for our respective routes.
Improvising carriers' sacks from canvas register supply sacks and valise straps, and routing our mail as best we could, we started out next morning on the first free mail delivery ever made in Alaska.