Excerpts from "Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900"
by Fred Lockley
The Service Begins
The first establishment on my route was a boat anchored in Snake River, the "Minneapolis," which was used as a private hospital and boarding house. It was one of several other similar business locations on my route. The high cost of business lots, building material and labor caused boats to be pressed into service for business purposes. The Quickstep Restaurant and Hotel was conducted on board a boat attached to the shore by a gangplank. The Pacific Cold Storage Co. employed the steamer, "Lotta Talbot," as their place of business.
The appearance of a uniformed letter carrier delivering mail as calming in the midst of all the confusion as though home was a sight that stopped traffic almost as quickly as a fight would have done. Men bent beneath the weight of a heavy pack would stop a moment, shift their packstraps and look at me. "That is the most natural thing I have seen since I left Denver," said one onlooker. "Blamed if it don't make a man feel as if he was in God's country, and that Alaska was part of the United States. Uncle Sam is a brick. I always did think so; now I know it." They would given a approving nod and them "mush on" out over the trembling tundra in search of the elusive gold.
Before we had gone a block we were surrounded by an eager throng, giving us orders to deliver their mail to this and that place. We had to establish the rule that only those actually engaged in business, either as proprietor or as employee, could have their mail delivered, or we would have had half the population giving orders to have their mail left in care of different business firms. I am afraid that the rule was more honored in the breach than in the observance, however, for we would deliver mail at some saloons for a score or more of persons. When I inquired if they were all employees the answer would be, "Oh yes. They are working for us all right, but just now they are out on one of the creeks."
You often read of the postman being as an ever-welcome visitor. I never knew what that meant before. Welcome is a very mild term for the enthusiastic reception we frequently received. One man on my route was so worried by not hearing from home that he was almost ready to pull up stakes and leave. He had not heard from his wife since his arrival, and he fancied some one with a similar name was receiving his mail. I took his name, and next day handed him five letters from his wife. Welcome! Well, rather.
Speaking of persons with similar names reminds me of Peter Peterson. There were three peter Petersons who had no middle initial, and several of that name having a middle initial, each of whom thought his correspondents might by accident have omitted his middle initial. When any one of the many Petersons called for his mail he had to tell the place from which he expected it. If he could not tell the postmark of the office or dispatch, he had to wait until the various other Peters had had an opportunity of identifying it as theirs. This rule led to the various Peter Petersons to do some wild guessing as to where their letters might be from.
The general delivery was said to be the largest in the United States, and I presume it was, as in large cities most of the mail is handled through carriers, boxes or sub-stations. in the Nome general delivery the alphabet was divided into over seven hundred divisions. For example, it required seventy boxes to case the letter "B." The most common names were assigned one or more boxes. The "Johnsons" required five separations, being divided on their initials: box one consisting of Johnsons whose initials were between A and J; the next J and M; M to P; P to S; and S to Z. Some names there were which were not apt to be duplicated: for example, such names as these, which I copied from letters in the general delivery: Ole, Yonassen, Stensfjelt and G.E. Tyszkiewiez.
When the system of free delivery had been in operation several weeks we were looking through seven pouches of letters just received by the steamer "Roanoke" from the "outside," as "God's country" was always termed. After looking through five pouches we took a rest to get our supper. During our absence the inspector and acting postmaster counted the letters I had gotten from the mail for my patrons. There were one thousand and seventh-four, and from the remaining two pouches I got several hundred more. Upon several steamer days I had taken out on my first trip more than twelve hundred letters, getting from the same mail one or two hundred additional in going through the general delivery cases, looking up my patrons name by name from my route book.