Owney, the Postal Dog
by Pam Bonsper
“He wears a broad collar with a tinkling bell and an inscription that tells an inquiring world that ‘I am Owney, the railway mail dog. Whose dog are you?’ ”
~ Hopkinsville Kentuckian
Owney was a mutt—a terrier mix. He lived around 120 years ago and you can go see him anytime. He is one of the most famous dogs in the world. He recently had a major makeover and is looking better than ever. He will become more famous and more valuable with age (like an old wine, he will just improve). He will last forever—the U.S. Post Office has just issued a Forever stamp with Owney, in profile, surrounded by many of his tags and medals.
It’s a true story, all right. And it starts back when trains carried mail back and forth throughout the forty-eight states. Owney, a spunky little stray dog who hung out at a post office in Albany, New York, loved to sit on the mail bags and watch the clerks work. He must have really loved those mail bags because he’d jump into the wagons that took the bags to the trains. He must have really, really loved those mail bags because he started travelling with them on the rails. As the trains jerked along, the railway mail clerks opened and sorted the mail, and Owney— in the midst of his beloved bags— began his legendary life of travel, adventure, and fame.
Train travel wasn’t very safe in the late 1800s and train wrecks were common, but no train that carried Owney ever had any mishaps. Owney became a good-luck mascot and was taken care of by the railway mail clerks. When they arrived at a city, Owney accompanied the clerks and the bags to the post office. He was often fed by the postal employees, but sometimes took a tour of the town and found his own meal. He was independent yet viciously protective of his mail bags. It is still debated whether he decided which trains to go on and where to go.
Owney made so many trips he became famous, clocking up more train miles than the most well-traveled and affluent citizens. It was just a matter of time before he began accumulating travel rewards!
Owney’s rewards were medals, tags and trinkets which people attached to his collar: Some were from the cities he visited, some from businesses and stores, and others from hotels and railroad depots. It was a clever way to advertise. A tag with the name of a hotel in Cincinnati might show up in Denver. If a telegraph request for two rooms came from Denver, there was no doubt where Owney was. When the tags and medals became too heavy for Owney’s collar, Postmaster General John Wanamaker had a special vest made for the postal mascot dog. The little terrier proudly wore his badges and medals wherever he went.
Owney was not only a character, but an adventurer. He traversed the continental United States multiple times racking up thousands of miles. But, like most adventurers, he had his sights not just on the United States, but on the whole world.
He was not to be outdone by a man named George Train or a woman named Nellie Bly. They both made around-the-world ventures in the late 1800s. On August 19, 1895, Owney, assisted by Railway Post Office clerks in Tacoma, Washington, boarded the steamship Victoria and headed to the Far East. The clerks attached a note to his collar explaining that he was the pet of 100,000 postal workers and should be treated kindly. They also said that whoever came in contact with him should send him on his way—to Yokohama, Hong Kong, and New York, then by land back to Tacoma, Washington.
So off the globe-trotting canine went. He received new medals and a passport from the emperor of Japan, continued through Shanghai and Foochow, then from China went through the Suez Canal and finally back to New York City. He finally got back to Tacoma on December 29th, a little over four months after his departure. He had attained his Elite Gold Star Platinum Plus Frequent Canine Traveler status.
He had also attained more fame than any other dog and became, for a time, the most famous dog in the world. Being a big-time celebrity, he was sought after and invited to attend a variety of events, but he preferred jumping on trains and smelling mail bags to being photographed by the paparazzi.
By the time Owney made his last trip in 1897, he had received more than 1,017 medals and trinkets and had left post offices with hundreds of letters and notes, which verified his travels and experiences.
After his death, his benefactors decided to have Owney preserved by a taxidermist. Recently, he had a major restoration--just in time to look his best for the new stamp issued in his honor.
So who will Owney become?
The answer to that question depends on how many people buy a stamp even if they don’t use snail mail, how many read his childrens’ books even if they aren’t children, and how many go online to an upcoming interactive site to follow his adventures. It will also depend upon how many people go to see Owney at the Smithsonian where he resides. According to Nancy A. Pope, Historian at the National Postal Museum, “He can still be found there today, standing guard next to a RPO train car exhibit, ready to jump on board and follow the mail just one more time.”
I don’t think Owney will ever stop traveling. I think he’s working toward his Mega Multi-Million Mile Rewards Card. And, I think he’ll use it to buy some really old and really smelly… leather mail bags.