Through snow, rain, heat and gloom of night for 232 years.
COLUMN: Albert B. Southwick
The Worcester Post Office these days is quite an operation. Postmaster Stephen Rossetti presides over 425 employees, 175 cars and trucks and various parcels of real estate, including the main post office and several branches. The team makes about 80,000 deliveries daily to postal boxes at homes, businesses and other destinations. The number of letters, packages, etc. is in the hundreds of thousands.
That's a big contrast to the situation on Nov. 15, 1775, when Isaiah Thomas took over as the town's first postmaster. Worcester in those days was a modest community of perhaps 1,500 people sprinkled over a large area that included what is now Holden and part of Auburn. It was mostly farms and woods. Its Main Street, essentially a cart path, connected to Lancaster Road (Lincoln Street) to the east and to the Connecticut or Country Road (Route 9) to the west. Downtown Main Street boasted various wooden homes, shops and other buildings, including the meeting house on the Common. It served as both town hall and church.
The first Worcester post office was located on Main Street, in a building just south of where Mechanics Hall stands. The weekly routine was as follows: On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Thomas and his assistant, Nathaniel Maccarty, received and forwarded one mail from the west and on Friday morning one from the east. Mr. Maccarty carried letters and papers to Fitchburg on Wednesday morning, thus serving the northern section of Worcester County. Whether Mr. Maccarty did that on horseback with saddlebags or with a carriage I am unable to say.
Nor do I know what Mr. Thomas was paid for his labors or how long he was postmaster. He was also editor of the Massachusetts Spy, a weekly that he published in Worcester after he fled Boston during the battle of Lexington. After the Revolution, he went into book printing, and became the leading publisher in the new nation.
The post office in those days was not exactly a gravy train. From January to April 1800, the total receipts were $170.801/2. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson appointed James Wilson Worcester postmaster. Mr. Wilson served for the next 32 years, probably a record for Worcester postmasters.
Annual postal revenues climbed gradually over the years, and by 1825 amounted to a total of $713. By 1832 they had almost doubled, to $1,469; by 1836, they were $2,827. The amount of mail carried increased proportionately - from 4,409 letters in 1809 to 523,000 in 1857. At that time, the Worcester post office was the only one in the county. All the county mail was received here and, according to one account, "dispatched to their proper destinations, to hamlets and to single cottages lying scattered across the entire county."
There was no home delivery. In the 1770s and 1780s, farmers in outlying areas like Holden or Tatnuck or Brookfield had to hitch up the team every week or so and drive in to Worcester to get their mail along with whatever groceries or supplies they needed.
Early on, stagecoaches were used to carry the mail from town to town. As the stage lines extended to Gardner, Boston, Southbridge, Connecticut and other destinations, bags of mail went along on a regular basis. By the turn of the 1800s, the post office in Washington purchased a number of stagecoaches for operation on the post roads - so-called because the mail was carried on them - but I do not know whether they were used in Worcester County, or even in Massachusetts.
The stagecoach era ended in the 1830s, shortly after the railroad arrived. The Boston-Worcester Railroad began running on July 4, 1835, and within five or six years there was rail service to Springfield, Providence, Albany and New Haven. Mail delivery became a sizable budget item for the railroads.
Worcester was not much affected by the Pony Express, which in 1860-61 carried mail by horses in relays between St. Joseph, Mo., and California. The advertisement for riders was blunt: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
The Pony Express cut the time of mail deliveries between Missouri and the West Coast from 20 days to about 10 days. It set a record in March 1861, when it carried President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address in 7 days and 12 hours.
I do not know if any letter sent from Worcester ever was carried by the Pony Express, but I like to think so. It continued service until Oct. 24, 1861, when the transcontinental telegraph line went into operation.
By the middle of the 19th century, a system of "penny posts" was adopted. People who wanted mail delivered to their homes or businesses could have that done for a fee of one penny per item. One account says that before the advent of stamps, "the penny posts went about town in their antique chaises, carrying a box to contain the valuable mail, letters from business and from sweethearts to sweethearts." Free city delivery, with stamps on the envelopes, began in the late 1850s and became standard before the Civil War. But it was another 40 years before people in the hinterlands got the same service. Rural Free Delivery began in 1896 and soon became - and remains - wildly popular in the farming areas of the country.
Worcester in the mid-19th century was becoming a formidable center of industry, which meant vastly increased use of the mail. By 1900 the Worcester post office employed 41 clerks and 61 carriers. Postmaster J. Evarts Greene, who was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891, had a budget of $19,142 for hiring clerks and $26,892 for hiring carriers that year. By 1899, annual receipts were $225,004 and expenses were $205,006, leaving a surplus of $19,998 for the year. In May 1901, Mr. Greene petitioned Washington for four automobiles to help deliver packages.
Also in 1901, the Worcester Post Office was notified that the 40-hour week would be in force, and that postmen would not work more than eight hours a day. The Evening Gazette headline read "Letter Carriers Have to Hustle," which implied that the postmen would be expected to deliver the same quota of mail as before, which may not have been what the union had in mind.
Many changes have come in the past two centuries, even in the past half-century. The towns - and many villages, such as Jefferson and Rochdale - have their own post offices. Older folks in Worcester can remember the main post office in the Federal Building at Franklin (now Federal) Square. For generations, that was the place to go to get stamps, mail letters and packages and get postal money orders.
Mr. Rossetti and his team of diligent workers are heirs to a lot of history. What would Worcester be - what would the nation be, even in this era of the Internet - without fast and reliable postal service?
Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Aug 28, 2008|
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