history

Early Mail Service - Talk About Your Snail Mail!

Today, we take our mail service for granted. In fact, we complain about the deluge of junk mail that often fills our

mail box. But what about the mail situation for the earliest settlers in our region? Prior to 1851, the only northern Michigan post office was on Mackinac Island. Reverend Peter Daugherty and members of the Old Mission settlement were able to send and receive mail only by making the long trek to the island. Lewis Miller, who operated a trading post at the settlement, would make the nip several times a year to replenish his stock and act as mail deliverer. Reverend George N. Smith established a mission in Waukazooville (Northport) in the summer of 1849. On July 2 of that year, in an entry in his diary, he mentions receiving mail brought down from Mackinac Island by members of the Old Mission settlement.

In October of 1849, Smith’s diary tells of his trip to Old Mission to attend a meeting in which a petition was drawn up for a new post office at that location. Meanwhile, for the little Hannah, Lay and Co. lumber camp at the foot of the Bay, the only connection with the outside world was when sailing ships from Chicago brought in supplies.

The petition for a new post office at Old Mission received no action from Washington until 1851. At that time approval was finally granted and the Grand Traverse Post Office came into existence. The first postmaster was W. R. Stone and the post office was located in his log cabin. The mail was kept in a raisin box nailed to the kitchen wall until it could be transported north. Once a “reasonable quantity” of mail had accumulated, a Native American messenger was hired to make the hundred-mile trip to Mackinac Island. He was taken by boat to a point near Elk Rapids from where he started out on foot to his destination. When he returned some days later, he would build a huge bonfire on the shore to signal his safe arrival and postmaster Stone would go across to bring him the rest of the way home.

As the volume of mail grew, a delivery service was established that made regular trips once every two weeks. William Davenport of Mackinac Island was hired to provide the transportation. His dog team consisted of four hounds and a sledge made of thin boards. Whether on snow or the dirt trail, the lightly constructed sledge and the strong, healthy dogs glided quickly along the trail with their master jogging along behind.

By 1853, Perry Hannah decided the logging settlement had grown enough to have its own post office. A. Tracy Lay was sent to Washington to personally petition the government. The only problem encountered was in selecting a name for the post office. Lay wanted to call it Grand Traverse but that name was al- ready associated with the Old Mission post office. A compromise was arrived at and the name became Traverse City. At the time the name seemed to overstate the reality of the little settlement of fewer than one hundred inhabitants. Eventually, nearly forty years later, the little settlement had grown to the point that it was officially chartered as a bona fide city.

With the new Traverse City post office established, the mail began to arrive from the south by way of Manistee over an old Indian trail. Once again, a Native American became the mail carrier making the trek on foot. Soon the volume of mail became more than one man could handle. The job then went to Hugh McGinnis who cut the first road through the wilderness from Traverse City to Herring Creek near the present site of Onekema. From that point the route headed south through Manistee, Ludington, and Whitehall.

As I reflect back on the history of our mail delivery service, I find it hard to complain when, on a rare occasion, an important piece of mail seems to be taking too long to arrive.

- Joy Wilson