HISTORY: 'Hey Mister Postman, is that a letter for me?'
For those who find the title of our story this month to be oddly familiar, you can thank the song introduced by the Marvelettes in 1961, revived later by The Carpenters: "Please Mr. Postman". Yes, we're talking this month about the United States Postal Service â€“ a very large part of early American History, and certainly of Inner Southeast Portland's history.
For the pioneers who traveled the arduous 2,000-mile journey on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, and who when they arrived chose to settle in the Oregon Territory, it was a relief to finally put down roots, build a home, and begin making a living from the land. But one of the few luxuries that they really missed was news from family members, back where they started from.
These new Oregonians were eager for letters from relatives and friends in the eastern States; they wanted to read a newspaper from their home town, or to receive updates on events on the Atlantic Coast. Even trying to obtain money from banks back east was hard, in this isolated section of the Northwest.
As towns were built and communities established, a Post Office was one of major necessities for the pioneers. But once a Post Office was opened for customers for mailing and receiving letters from loved ones, the mail was often very slow in getting to its destination.
'Deliver the letter, the sooner the better…'
In 1850, Congress offered a subsidy to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to carry mail on a regular basis to Portland from the East Coast, but the all-important mail remained slow in being delivered. Donation Land Claim owners like Henderson Lewelling, George and Jacob Wills, and Lot Whitcomb in the town of Milwaukie, often had to wait three to six months for a personal letter to arrive by boat at their homestead.
Once a steamship from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company sounded its horn and docked at the Portland Wharves, it was no surprise to anyone when thousands turned out to cheer its arrival, and hundreds of people lined the doors of the Portland Post Office waiting for mail to be sorted and delivered â€“ usually the next day.
For postal customers living even farther away from Portland â€“ in Milwaukie, Oregon City, and even just on the outskirts of town â€“ the wait for their mail was longer and more excruciating. There seemed, as yet, no easy solution to this problem.In 1858, Edwin L. Corner, and his bride-to-be Mary Ann (Wood), set out to cross the Plains on the Oregon Trail, arriving in the community of Salem. After a short stop, the Corner family moved to Portland; and it was here that Edwin, in thoughtful consideration, looked over a new development being created by the Sellwood Real Estate Company. It was a town to be called Sellwood.
In 1883 lots were advertised for sale to the public which included the plans for a school, to be built just up the hill at 15th and Umatilla. A robust commercial district was already starting to form on Umatilla Street down to the waterfront, where waiting ships and steamers dropped off supplies, goods, mail, and the people interested in living here.
The only thing missing from the new frontier town of Sellwood was a Post Office. Mr. Corner opened his grocery store, which included a Post Office, and he officially became the first Postmaster of the new town. Chosen as a member of the Sellwood City Council, Mr. Corner boasted that he was the first settler to buy a lot and had built the first house, thus making him one of Sellwood's founders.
For the following ten years local residents stopped in at the Corner Grocery to buy staples, pick up letters from friends and relatives, and spend a few minutes chatting with neighbors while finding out what was happening in the big city of Portland just up the river. Incoming and outgoing parcels and mail were delivered or sent by a steamboat which arrived three times a day, and Edwin made the trek each time it did, down to the docks from his store on 6th and East Umatilla, to collect goods for his store and mail for his postal customers.
Few people lived in Sellwood during the late 1890's, and those were scattered around the area. Maintaining a Post Office, let alone making a profit from one, proved difficult for most Postmasters. It wasn't uncommon to find an appointed Postmaster running a dual business, and also providing other services not related to buying stamps or mailing parcels. The turnover rate among Postmasters was high, because of the meager proceeds to be had from selling postal products.
The postal location would change, as each proprietor accepting the appointment of Postmaster would usually move the postal equipment and fixtures into their own storefront.
And, it was uncharacteristic in that time period to find a woman doing what was then considered a man's job. However, on July 10th, 1894, Postal records reveal that a Mrs. Mintie Prather was commissioned as Postmistress of the Sellwood Post Office (which was then designated a Fourth Class Post Office), making her probably one of the first women to hold this position anywhere in the Oregon Territory.
But, six years later for reasons unknown, Mrs. Prather resigned her position, and the local druggist â€“ Albert B. Hemstock -- was appointed the new Postmaster.
Sellwood, an independent town which was annexed into the City of Portland in 1893, it lost its volunteer City Council with that merger, but it still had its own Postmaster. It wasn't until the Postal Officials in Washington D.C. decided to combine the Sellwood Post Office with the Portland Postal Department on June 29th, 1901, that Sellwood no longer had its own Postmaster. Postal records reveal that July 1st, 1901, was the official date for the old Sellwood Post Office to be converted into a Postal Station and consolidated into the Portland Postal System. "Station Managers" were assigned to all Portland Stations by the Portland Postmaster, whose office was at the Main Post Office in Northwest Portland.
Joseph D. Chapman, a real estate entrepreneur, was appointed the new Sellwood Station Manager, succeeding Mr. Hemstock, who moved to California. Albert Hemstock would return to Sellwood a few years later, but in a new profession â€“ as Sellwood's premier undertaker and embalmer. Meanwhile the Sellwood Station was officially declared a full-fledged Post Office, enabling it to issue money orders for customers, as well as store and deliver valuable registry articles, provide postal supplies for sale, and receive and dispatch mail for local residents.
This new Sellwood Post Office was located on 6th and East Umatilla, in what was once the old Sellwood Barbershop. And, once Mr, Chapman was in charge, he then moved the station and supplies across the street into the drug store where he worked as a druggist.
In the early years, the Portland Post Office on N.W. Broadway serviced the entire city, and provided carriers to outlying stations. Mail from across the nation arrived by steamer and later by the trains that filled Union Station on a daily basis. Once the mail was sorted and ready for delivery, horse-drawn wagons were used on Portland's busy commercial streets to deliver newspapers, periodicals, correspondence, and assorted items to customers.
The most efficient and cost-saving method of delivery on the east side of the Willamette River was Portland's electric street car system, so mail carriers assigned across the river picked up their mail at the Main Postal Station and hopped aboard a streetcar. They got off at their designated stop â€“ in Mt. Tabor, Woodstock, Brooklyn, East Portland, and Sellwood â€“ where they delivered the mail to postal customers on foot, before taking a streetcar back downtown again.
That was a long journey for mail carriers, and customers in Sellwood and Westmoreland complained regularly about late mail arrivals, as frustrated postal carriers dealt with streetcars that were behind schedule.
Few Sellwood mail carriers were ever stationed at the local Post Office at that time, so streetcar deliveries were common well into the mid-1920s, when automobiles and trucks finally became available for the cash-strapped Postal Service to use for mail carriers.
The Sellwood Station was a haven for farmers, tradesmen, merchants, and the public to safeguard their cash by converting it into money orders to be kept in their homes until they needed to cash them in at a later date. It was the only banking system available for Sellwood residents who didn't want to make the long trip to the bigger banks in Downtown Portland. It wasn't until the Sellwood Bank opened in 1907 that the public could safely do banking at a regular local bank, and no longer had to rely on the local Post Office for whatever banking they did.
Because of this, Post Offices were a prime target for criminals, some of them within the organization. The Oregonian newspaper reported in 1907 that R. A. Nichols â€“ a clerk working at a drug store in Albina, in North Portland â€“ had been arrested for having $15 worth of stolen stamps from the Sellwood Post Office in his possession. Even though the amount seems small to us today, the Federal Government took any theft from any Post Office very seriously, and often the guilty party could spend years in a federal prison for even such a small offense.
Sometimes there were armed robberies of Post Offices, too. In 1907, Andy Sorrenson was the local policeman assigned to the Sellwood District. On a cold January day, Patrolman Sorrenson surprised a man attempting to crack the safe in the Sellwood Post Office. Shots were fired on both sides, and a running gun battle ensued, with Officer Sorenson being shot in the ankle. Dr. John Sellwood, head surgeon at the Sellwood Hospital, was called upon; and officer Sorenson's foot was quickly bandaged. The fleeing criminal was later caught and imprisoned for the dastardly deed. Indicative of the different attitudes of residents over a century ago, few locals complained or were even concerned about the patrolman's actions, in which one of the bullets could have hit an innocent bystander during this encounter.
The most devastating postal turn of events for Sellwood residents was not a crime â€“ but a decision by postal officials in Washington D.C. to close the Sellwood Post Office in 1907 because it wasn't selling enough postage stamps. Sellwood Postal patrons were accused of buying their postage stamps at the Pioneer Station or the Main Branch on the west side of the river! The result was that Sellwood customers now would be required to travel north to Milwaukie Avenue and S.E. Powell to the Brooklyn Station for postal services. Sellwood residents and merchants who had been renting a P.O. Box in Sellwood for convenience, now had to travel the additional two miles to the Brooklyn neighborhood just to pick up their mail, as did postal customers who received a "pick up notice" at their home left by their mail carrier.
For the next few years, Sellwood residents kept protesting the loss of their own Postal Station â€“ and David M. Donaugh, President of the Sellwood Board of Trade, wrote scathing letters to Portland city leaders and postal officials. The common complaint among residents was that there wouldn't be any Sunday mail service (!), and that both incoming and outgoing mail would be delayed, since Mail Carriers had to travel even further to complete their routes. Streetcar service was also constantly running late, and frustrated carriers were left waiting at the curb until one finally arrived.
Before telephones became part of everyday life for the American public, the arrival of the mail carrier was a much-anticipated event. As the Twentieth Century advanced, mail volumes consistently kept rising, enhanced by a steady flow of magazines offered to the public by subscription. Housewives, husbands, and even children could buy subscriptions to hundreds of magazines, pulp fiction novels, and young people's periodicals. Mail carriers were inundated with bags full of Colliers, Good Housekeeping, Popular Mechanics, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, The American Magazine, and a host of others to deliver. The public was hungry for media of various kinds, and newspapers were also arriving from around the country to be sorted out on the carriers' next-day delivery schedule.
Annual celebrations marked the Fourth of July festivities in the neighborhood, but in 1909 there was an even bigger celebration on August 1st â€“ for the opening of a new Sellwood Postal Station, just a few doors down from the Sellwood Bank on 13th Avenue! John C. Young was named as its Station Manager, and he was also assigned three postal carriers at the new station, saving the delays previously encountered when downtown carriers had to ride the streetcars to deliver mail in Sellwood.With the return of a Sellwood Postal Station, postal box holders in Sellwood were briefly confused about where to pick up their daily mail; and at intervals they were even uncertain just where the current Postal Station was even located! That's because, with a succession of new Postal Managers each year, each appointed Manager would transfer postal duties and property into the business that he or she was currently operating.
In 1914 the Sellwood Station was situated on 13th Avenue near Harney Street, next to the famous Trites Sellwood Barbershop. Oscar Wallberg was the clerk in charge at the time, and the office was in what was destined to be Albert Hemstock's Funeral Parlor. By the following year 1915, though, the Sellwood Post Office moved across the street.
Besides giving customers the option of buying stamps or purchasing money orders, the Sellwood Station offered customers other conveniences: They could purchase tickets to ride the streetcar, or for passage on the Oregon California Railroad. Even admission to special events at Oaks Park, and evening dances aboard a chartered boat on the Willamette River, could be bought at the Sellwood Post Office. Draft notices during the war years were also on display in the Postal lobby for young men to inspect, along with the latest "wanted" posters of current criminals and felons sought by the law.
The Sellwood Post Office had became a permanent fixture in the neighborhood by 1918, when the Federal Government started negotiating a long-term lease program. Otto O. Krogstad, the proprietor of the Sellwood Pharmacy, was appointed the new Supervisor, replacing David M. Donaugh â€“ and the postal office moved to yet another new location at 1663 S.E. 13th at Tenino Street, next to the "Woolworth Confectionary" (now known as the "American at Heart" shop). For the next forty years the Sellwood Station at that location would be the heart of the community.
When the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and the United States increased, war was declared on April 6th, 1917, and many of this nation's young men signed up to support the Allied Forces in Europe in what became World War I. America's involvement in the First World War caused a shortage of men on the home front, and many businesses â€“ including the Sellwood Post Office â€“ were hard-pressed to find men capable to deliver the mail. As a result, women were called upon to fill vacant positions at Postal installations across the country.
Women were initially hired as "Temporary Substitutes", but they did earn the same pay as their male counterparts â€“ albeit the now-paltry sum of 35 cents an hour. Once the armistice agreement was signed on November 11th, 1918, the "Great War" ended, and American solders returned to the jobs they'd previously held â€“ and in the Post Office, that meant replacing the ladies who had ensured the mail was delivered on time. (Women again came to the rescue, working as letter carriers and Postal personnel, when the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i, brought the United States into World War II, and caused another shortage in the male work force.)
But, getting back to 1920 after the war, Portland residents were startled to find Postal Carriers suddenly whizzing down city streets making deliveries on Harley Davidson motorcycles. These motorbikes, and other motorized vehicles â€“ all WWI equipment declared "surplus" â€“ were donated by the Secretary of War to Post Office Officials, for the faster delivery of the mail.
While most of the military trucks were in such bad condition that they eventually broke down and could never be used again, the Harley Davidsons were more reliable, and for some folks brought back romantic memories of the brief Nineteenth Century "Pony Express" when young men galloped gallantly through city streets, and across the plains and mountains, to deliver the mail for all of a year and a half.
Few people were experienced, as yet, in driving motorcycles, and most mail carriers struggled with these speedy motorbikes, strapped down with a 70-to-80-pound leather satchel bag loaded with first class mail. But the Harley Davidson cycles turned out to be a perfect fit for rural carriers, who found muddy roads and unimproved lanes otherwise impossible to travel during increment weather. These sturdy little motorized bikes handled difficult terrain admirably, and greatly improved mail service to country folks.
Mail volume had increased so rapidly by the 1950s that a new and larger Post Office was needed to serve Sellwood and Westmoreland. Looking to locate a facility closer to its expanding customer base, Postal Officials decided to move the facility north to Westmoreland.
The new Post Office was officially renamed the Sellwood-Moreland Station on September 1st, 1950. Initially it found a home in a glass-front building along Milwaukie Avenue between Ogden and Knapp Streets. A small, cramped alley in the back of the building was used by Postal Carriers for unloading and loading of mail, at a time when postal employees still had to use their own vehicles for mail deliveries.
With fourteen carriers now stationed at the Westmoreland office, postal employees were hurried along to get their autos loaded and out on the street fast, since that cramped alley could allow only one vehicle at a time.
By the start of the 1960s even that new Sellwood-Moreland Station on Milwaukie Avenue couldn't accommodate the staff of 20 to 30 mail carriers, the window and back-room clerks, and the supervisors, let alone parking for numerous postal vehicles. Preliminary plans for yet another new and larger Post Office included 4,500 square feet of floor space, 11,120 square feet for parking of postal vehicles, and a loading dock. Those plans became reality In 1962, when a new building was constructed at S.E 16th and Bybee Boulevard â€“ and the Sellwood-Moreland Branch became one of Portland's top three revenue-producing Stations in the area.
New planning strategies by the Postal Service in the 1990's again changed the Sellwood-Moreland Post Office. But this time the Postal Station remained at its location, and it simply meant that a separate building was built at the south end of Sellwood at Ochoco Street and S.E. 17th Avenue which was dedicated solely to being a Delivery Carrier Unit, as well as the neighborhood's customer package pickup location â€“ while the Westmoreland office on Bybee Boulevard remained and was designated a "Finance Office" as well as a P.O. Box location.
Much as it was sixty years ago, the Sellwood-Westmoreland community is still a "walking neighborhood" â€“ and remains a community where the Sellwood-Moreland Post Office is more than just a place to check your P.O. Box or send out presents, letters, and packages. It's still a place where neighbors can catch up with friends and acquaintances, and where stories are swapped between the Postal Clerks and customers. It still seems almost like being at an informal Town Hall gathering!
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