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National Parks: The Grand Canyon

Part of the Supai mail mule train
The mule train mail setting out for Supai, March 5, 2014.
The mule train mail setting out for Supai, March 5, 2014.

National parklands are primarily selected for their natural beauty, unusual geological formations, and distinct ecosystems. They protect wildlife, habitats, and plant specimens of unusual interest. Unlike other types of parks, which can be created by the president, a national park can be created only by Congress. Yellowstone, created in 1872, was not only the first national park in the United States; it was the first such park in the world. Its creation set a precedent followed globally today.

The Grand Canyon

Postal service at the Grand Canyon began in 1894, long before it became a national park. The only mule mail routes operating in the U.S. today serve the canyon. One, an official postal route operated by a star route contractor, supplies mail, food, medicine, and other goods to the Havasupai people, who live deep in the canyon. The second is an unofficial route operated for the convenience of visitors to Phantom Ranch, a tourist lodge near Bright Angel Creek.

32¢ Grand Canyon stamp art
32¢ Grand Canyon stamp art (Celebrate the Century Issue)
Loan from United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection
32¢ Grand Canyon stamp art (Celebrate the Century Issue)

32¢ Grand Canyon stamp art
(Celebrate the Century Issue)

A pre-1920 photograph by Putnam and Valentine inspired Dennis Lyall’s artwork for the 1998 Grand Canyon stamp in the Celebrate the Century series. After eleven years as a National Monument, the Grand Canyon became a National Park in 1919. The stamp honored this event as one of the decade’s greatest achievements.

Loan from United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection

Grand Canyon Post Office cash book
Grand Canyon Post Office cash book, circa 1902
Loan from National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon Post Office cash book, circa 1902

Grand Canyon Post Office cash book

Sending and receiving money via postal money orders simplified life for local people, travelers, and tourists. Martin Buggeln kept his post office transaction records in this cash book, making it an important source for the community’s economic history.

Loan from National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park

Bright Angel Camp letter, circa 1909-1911
Bright Angel Camp letter, circa 1909-1911
Loan from Marjory J. Sente
Bright Angel Camp letter, circa 1909-1911

Bright Angel Camp cover and letter

Martin Buggeln sold the Bright Angel Hotel to Fred Harvey about 1907. Early mail from employees and visitors often remarked on the rustic and primitive nature of the experience. The letterhead shows a party setting out from the camp for the trip down Ralph Cameron’s Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River.

Loan from Marjory J. Sente

Bright Angel Camp cover, circa 1909-1911
Bright Angel Camp cover, circa 1909-1911
Loan from Marjory J. Sente
Bright Angel Camp cover, circa 1909-1911

National Parks Year Issue first day cover, 1934
Retail windows and sorting cases are visible in this 1935 photograph of Grand Canyon’s New Deal-era post office. A new facility opened in the 1970s and continues to operate today with the ZIP Code 86023.
Courtesy National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park
Retail windows and sorting cases are visible in this 1935 photograph of Grand Canyon’s New Deal-era post office. A new facility opened in the 1970s and continues to operate today with the ZIP Code 86023.
Courtesy National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park

White canvas sack with metal grommets, leather cinch belt, and label holder; heavily soiled from use; marked U.S. MAIL
Supai, Arizona mailbag, retired 2015
Supai, Arizona mailbag, retired 2015

Supai, Arizona mailbag

Canvas and plastic mailbags carry first-class mail destined for the Indian village at Supai. Most of Supai’s mail, however, travels via Priority Mail or parcel post. With no easy access to markets, the Havasupai people receive personal items such as groceries, furniture, medicine, and small appliances by mule mail train. A walk-in freezer at the Peach Springs post office stores frozen food, which also makes its way down the canyon.

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Supai mule mail riding saddle, retired 2015
Supai mule mail riding saddle, retired 2015

Supai mule mail riding saddle

The mule train mail route makes some amenities of modern life available to the Grand Canyon’s Havasupai people. The postman, a much-anticipated daily arrival, leads the mule train both on foot and by riding the saddled lead mule. The journey down takes approximately three hours.

Leather mailbag with metal buckles and rivets
Phantom Ranch mochila
Loan from Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc.
Phantom Ranch mochila

Phantom Ranch mochila

Mail also travels by mule to and from Grand Canyon National Park’s Phantom Ranch, located at the bottom of the canyon. This service is offered by the ranch’s proprietor and is not an official postal route. Postcards and letters dispatched from the ranch receive a unique marking and are deposited in a mochila in the lobby. This World War II cavalry saddlebag collected Phantom Ranch’s outgoing mail from the late 1940s until 2005.

Loan from Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc.

Mule pack saddle for mail
Phantom Ranch pack saddle, retired 2015
Loan from Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc.
Photo by Juan Carlos Briceño
Phantom Ranch pack saddle, retired 2015
Loan from Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc.
Photo by Juan Carlos Briceño