Hailing from Albany, New York, a scruffy terrier mix who came to be called Owney trotted his way into the Albany post office one day in 1888. No one knows for certain, but it is thought he was the dog of a postal worker who left town without him. Or perhaps he was simply a stray pup attracted to the post office smells and sights. In any event, Owney sure liked being near post offices and mail bags.
Owney endeared his way into the hearts and minds of postal workers there who let him use postal bags for a bed and took to giving him scraps of food. Soon Owney was riding postal wagons and eventually railway mail trains. In those days — long before the advent of zip codes — mail was sorted right on the train before getting to the postmarked destination.
Eventually Owney became the unofficial mascot of the United States Railway Mail Service. He rode the railway mail cars during most of the 1890s, crossing the U.S and Canada with rumors of his paws pounding the streets in Mexico. In August 1895, as a publicity stunt, he hopped a steamer from Tacoma, Washington, traveled to Asia and Europe and eventually returned to Tacoma in December of that year.
In an era when train accidents were all too common, Owney was considered a lucky charm. For all the hundreds of thousands of miles he traveled in his lifetime, not one train he rode was ever involved in a wreck.
He became so well known that at many towns he visited, he was given a tag to wear documenting the seasoned traveler. I suppose you could think of the tags as his doggie passport. A harness was fabricated to hold the many tags — 377 in total — when they became too heavy for his collar.
Eventually, postal clerks started forwarding the tags to Albany where they were put on public display. Have a look at the many tags Owney collected throughout the years. And here are more photos of Owney in his own century.
Owney is Honored
On July 27, 2011, the USPS is celebrating Owney and his amazing travels with a postage stamp in his honor. The National Postal Museum — part of the Smithsonian Institute — in Washington, D.C. has made a new exhibit that was unveiled Wednesday. It holds nationwide celebrations about Owney including a four-day family festival.
Owney was a celebrity in his day and many newspapers of the time would report on Owney’s travels, including the New York Times, Boston Daily Globe, New York Herald, Sacramento Daily Union, San Francisco Call and the Los Angeles Times. Reporters enjoyed interviewing the famous fur ball as evidenced by a Boston Daily Globe story from December 19, 1893:
“Owney is in town, presumably for the holidays, although when asked the cause of his presence in the city he refused to talk for publication … He came up to make his regular call at THE GLOBE office, for he never fails to look in on the largest circulation for a moment. He clearly believes in the benefits of advertising.”
As famous as Owney was in his day, the tragedy of his death was all too typical for the times he lived in. Feeling the effects of old age, Owney was retired in the spring of 1897 and lived with a postal employee in St. Louis, Missouri. By June of that year, Owney could not resist the call of the trains and again started riding the rails.
On June 11, 1897, Owney was visiting the Toledo, Ohio post office when he suddenly bit a postal clerk as he was attempting to look at some of the dog’s many tags. The postmaster called the local marshal who shot Owney dead.
Mail clerks throughout the U.S. collected money to have Owney stuffed instead of buried. Owney’s taxidermied body was on display by the postal department until 1912 when he was turned over to the Smithsonian Institute. The 114-year-old remains have been cleaned and updated by a taxidermist for Wednesday’s event.
Image of new postal stamp: Smithsonian