was a muttly terrier who rose from the ranks of the homeless to celebrity status
with his image on the newly issued U.S. Forever postage stamp. His life was that
of a courageous 19th-Century pioneer pup, fighting the odds, if not the Indians.
Although his life story has periods of unknown activity, as befits an independent
type like Owney, it is sometimes necessary to fill in the blanks with an imagined
version of probable events. Here then is a mostly true tale of as brave a being
as ever worked in a branch of the government explicitly authorized by the United
States Constitution. |
Forever Postal Stamp with Owney The Postal Dog|
courtesy of National Postal Museum
was born in Albany, New York. Probably. One can never tell with a one-night stand.
He may have been born in 1886, 1887 or 1888, more or less. You see, births were
not registered back then unless you were human. Owney badly wanted to be human
and even more, he wanted to be a mailman in the RMS (Railway Mail Service). Some
say Owney began his career walking to work with a human postal clerk who took
a shine to him and let him hang out at the work place. Others believe Owney simply
crept into the post office, unnoticed, and began his career that very day, when
he fell madly in love with a mail pouch. |
Owney developed a passionate
and lasting affection for all ordinary mail pouches transported by railroad and
mail wagon. One day, a sack of mail fell off the mail wagon Owney had hitched
a ride on, and he jumped off the wagon and onto the sack, guarding it until the
driver could retrieve it.
It is fair to say that Owney idolized those
bags even more than the humans who dealt with the mail they contained. Perhaps,
since mail sacks were used by mailmen on their routes as shields against unfriendly
canines, it was the scent of all those other dogs that so fascinated Owney. Or
perhaps the leather wasn't properly cured. Whatever the reason, Owney was in love
and decided to stay forever. In fact, he did even better than that; he also traveled
with them. It wasn't so much that Owney wanted to ride the rails, it was more
that he followed the mail sacks onto mail wagons and then onto mail trains, riding
along with the bags wherever they went. He was even known to leap from one mail
train right onto another.
the Postal Dog on the Train|
National Postal Museum
|There is no proof
that Owney helped railroad mail personnel sort the mail while in transit, becoming
the fastest sorter of all time, but neither is there proof that he didn't. |
was a jet setter long before jets were invented. He traveled first across New
York State, and then across the entire nation, and in 1895, Owney went around
the world, traveling with mailbags on trains and steamships all the way to China,
Japan, The Suez, Alaska, Mexico, and across Europe, before coming home to Albany.
We know this is true because The National Postal Museum in the Smithsonian says
Despite the then-common danger of train wrecks and derailments (and
perhaps holdups by Butch and Sundance, the Younger Brothers or Jesse James), when
80 mail clerks were killed and over 2,000 injured, if Owney was aboard, no train
ever met with trouble. He was considered by the RMS to be a good-luck charm, and
adopted as their Unofficial Mascot.
the Postal Dog |
|The kind people Owney
met on his many trips began to give him medals and tags with the name of their
town to put on his collar. One tag reads "Presented to His Dogship by F.M. Parker."
In 1894, a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that "Nearly every place
he stopped, Owney received an additional tag, until now he wears a big bunch.
When he jogs along, they jingle like the bells on a junk wagon." In fact, he had
so many that when Postmaster General John Wanamaker heard that the weight on Owney's
collar was getting awfully heavy, he gave Owney a special harness to lighten his
with his harness and tags|
National Postal Museum
admirer wrote a poem about him: |
Owney is a tramp,
As you can plainly
Only treat him kindly
And take him along with ye.
that Owney lived an exciting and useful life makes it somewhat less depressing
to learn that he did not die of old age. Alas, after debarking a mail train in
Toledo, Ohio in June 1897, and under shady circumstances at best, he died of a
bullet wound. Perhaps it was an accident by Ohio’s crack shot, Annie Oakley, when
she was cleaning her rifle, or revenge by someone who mistook Owney for his faithless
wife, or a thief who tried to steal a mailbag guarded by Owney. He died as he
lived, brave and strong, representing the U.S. Post Office. But even deceased,
Owney still traveled.
He was so beloved and his loss so greatly felt,
that ordinary mail clerks raised enough funds to preserve Owney forever. His stuffed
self was moved to Post Office Department Headquarters in Washington D.C. He traveled
yet again in 1911 when he was reassigned to the Smithsonian where he still resides,
wearing his tags for all dog-loving visitors to see.
is right up there with Lassie, Old Yeller and Benjie with many books written about
him: "Owney The Post Office Dog and Other Great Dog Stories," by Joe L. Wheeler;
"The Further Adventures of a Lucky Dog: Owney, U.S. Rail Mail Mascot," by Dirk
Wales; "Owney the Mail Pouch Pooch," by Mona Kerby; "A Small Dog's Big Life: Around
the World With Owney," by Irene Kelly; and "All Aboard, Owney! The Adirondack
Mail Dog," by Jennifer Gordon Sattler.
There’s even an Owney The Dog iPhone
app. and an Owney iPad interactive e-book, issued in conjunction with the Postal
Museum’s Owney LookAlike contest: http://apps.facebook.com/promosapp/172763 (voting
begins September 16)
Not only all that, but you can check out “The Story
of Owney” video: http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/2c1f_owney_movie.html#1
Even though Owney himself may be no longer technically alive, his spirit lives
in the hearts of all who know of his dedication and abiding love.
20, 2011 column
"A Balloon In Cactus"
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