Bringing Postal Services to the San Juan Islands

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 2/12/2024
  • Essay 22920
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For residents of the San Juan Islands in the late nineteenth century, receiving and sending mail and parcels offered special challenges of distance and isolation. It might be months before a letter posted in Philadelphia arrived in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. The advent of steamship service from East Coast to West Coast decreased transport time, as did the completion of transcontinental railroads. Islanders were especially dependent on steamships to provide postal service to villages, and those on scattered farms or outlying small islands had often difficult journeys to pick up and send mail and parcels. The advent of the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service brought postal services directly to many residences. The Parcel Post service, begun in 1913, was another enormous benefit to both individuals and businesses, opening markets and expanding opportunities for customers and purveyors alike. Not all islanders were initially in favor of pursuing these new offerings, but by the first quarter of the twentieth century, RFD and Parcel Post services were generally considered essential to the growing county population. Even in the twenty-first century, however, postal service to the islands continues to have its challenges.

The Post by Stagecoach, Steamer, Canoe, and Horse

Although numerous Coast Salish Indian groups had for millennia visited and lived in what are now known as the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea of the Pacific Northwest, between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, it was not until the 1850s that new arrivals began settling in the islands. Some came from the gold fields of California and those of the Fraser River valley of British Columbia, and some arrived from the American and Canadian East and Midwest. Most left behind families and friends with whom they wanted to keep in touch, and many hoped to obtain goods that were not available in small island stores. But means of communication were scarce, and early settlers had to rely on infrequent wagon trains, stagecoach service, clipper ships, or individual travelers to bring news and mail across the prairies, mountains, and seas.

Recognizing that diverse environments around the country often precluded standard mail delivery, Congress in 1845 had authorized the U.S. Post Office Department to contract with private companies to carry mail, which they had to swear to do with "celerity, certainty, and security" ("What Is ..."). Postal clerks found this phrase a burden to frequently repeat in ledgers and began to denote these contracts with three asterisks, prompting them to become known as "star routes." Delivery on star routes could be made by boat, horse, mules, even dog sleds. Steamships were to prove an especially effective way to increase the speed and reliability of mail transport, but it wasn't until 1849, just as the California gold rush drew thousands more people west, that the Post Office Department was allowed to contract with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to transport mail from New York to San Francisco. While this cut down the delivery time from coast to coast, even years later, in 1853, the mail still had a long, slow journey from San Francisco to newly established Washington Territory.

Among the earliest concerns of Isaac Stevens (1816-1862), first governor of the territory, was the need for better mail service to the entire Puget Sound region, as mail came by steamship only to Rainier on the Columbia River in today's Oregon. From there it had to travel by canoe up the Cowlitz River and then by horseback to Puget Sound communities and families. And often the mail would wait for 10 days at Rainier before the long trip north, much of it on a trail that was often flooded out or made impassable by fallen trees or other impediments. Consequently, mail frequently did not arrive from San Francisco for six weeks or more. As Stevens noted in a December 1853 letter to James Campbell (1812-1893), the recently appointed United States Postmaster General, this was especially detrimental to the merchants of the area who were constantly behind on information and missing opportunities. Stevens pointed out that the population of the territory was growing rapidly and the potential for development unlimited. What was needed, he urged, was direct steamship service from San Francisco to Puget Sound, which would "afford the people of this territory a more certain and direct communication with other portions of this great Republic, to which they are bound by the strongest ties, and in which their interests are so deeply involved" ("Governor Isaac I. Stevens ..."). It was another five years before such steamship service was inaugurated.

About the same time, European and American settlers were beginning to discover that the San Juan Islands offered excellent land for farming, extensive stands of timber, and seemingly unlimited harvests from the sea. The British-owned Hudson's Bay Company established a large farm on San Juan Island to support British claims of sovereignty to the islands, and friction between the British and American settlers led to 12 years of joint military occupation before a mediator supported America's claim to the islands in 1872. Although the San Juan Islands were still deemed "disputed" at the time, the first U.S. post office in the islands was opened in 1861 in a tavern in San Juan Town near the American military encampment on Griffin Bay on the southeast side of San Juan Island. Mail service was provided by a steamship plying an early star route once a week between Olympia in south Puget Sound and Victoria on Vancouver Island. The service lasted only until 1866, and it was not until the islands were declared part of the United States that postal service resumed.

After San Juan County was established in 1873, a post office was again opened in San Juan Town. Called "San Juan," it later moved to Argyle, five miles northwest. When a county seat was needed, Edward Warbass (1825-1906), newly appointed county auditor, filed for a homestead for the county government at what was known as Friday's Harbor, a deep-water bay several miles farther north. Settlers, however, did not rush to purchase property in the nascent community. To make the new town more attractive, Warbass reasoned, it needed to have postal service, and while there officially was a post office in the auditor's small combined office and home, he couldn't convince the steamship to stop, as there was no mail to be delivered. Undaunted, he began addressing an envelope or two to himself and taking them on horseback to San Juan Town to mail them, thus giving the steamship reason to deliver them at Friday Harbor. By 1874 a new steamship route had been established between Port Townsend and Semiahmoo (in British Columbia) which dropped off and picked up mail on San Juan, Lopez, Orcas, Guemes, Cypress, and Samish (now in Skagit County) islands and Sehome (today's Bellingham).

San Juan County Post Offices and Essential Steamship Service

With the establishment of regular steamship service out of Seattle and Port Townsend, completion of the transcontinental railroad, and expansion of rail service in Washington, mail between east and west was flowing more quickly and reliably. But getting it out to the scattered small settlements in the islands still presented difficulties. From the time U.S sovereignty over the islands was declared in 1872, residents clamored for post offices to be established. Sometimes mail reached those new sites directly by steamer, but often additional transport was necessary. On San Juan Island, for example, a post office was opened at Lime Kiln on the island's west side, but the mail arrived twice a week on a star route by wagon from Friday Harbor, where it was initially delivered.

Hiram Hutchinson (1831-1881), who homesteaded on Lopez Island in 1850, built a wharf and store at Fisherman's Bay on the northwest side of the island where, in 1873, that island's first post office was opened. His sister Irene Weeks (1840-1926) arrived that same year, and accounts differ as to whether Hiram or Irene was the first postmaster. The total population of the island was barely more than 70.

The first post office on Orcas Island was also established in 1873, initially at a site about two miles east of the present Orcas village on the south shore of the island. The scattered population of the island and its hilly, forested topography and horseshoe shape made cross-island travel difficult, prompting requests for numerous small post offices to be served by steamship along the island's coastline. By 1900 Deer Harbor, West Sound, Dolphin Bay, Orcas village, Ocean, East Sound (whose spelling would be changed in 1895 to Eastsound), Olga, and Doe Bay all had post offices. Some residents had first received their mail from larger villages. Deer Harbor inhabitants, for example, did not get their own post office until 1892. Previously their mail had been dropped off by a steamer at East Sound or Orcas village, and then brought to Deer Harbor by rowboat to the wharf built by Henry Cayou (1870-1959), son of an early settler who married a local Lummi-Saanich woman. Prior to the 1893 establishment of the post office at Olga, mail was conveyed there from Doe Bay by the Viereck family, who "had a contract to pick up and transport mail, like a pony express rider, once a week" (Olga: 125 Years, 61).

A Shaw Island post office was not opened until 1906. Service to the island was limited because there was no available dock for steamship landing. Mail was dropped by a passing ship at a float in Blind Bay at the northeast corner of the island, from where it had to be retrieved by rowboat or canoe until a dock and small structure were built.

Post offices rarely had their own buildings. The East Sound post office, for example, offered services in a combination residence and store; the building also included a dance hall that had been added as part of the original homestead. When the whole edifice was converted to a hotel, the post office remained. Residents of small islands had to make their way to post offices on larger islands or help one another by providing informal mail transport. Waldron Island received its mail when Henry Cayou was able to brave the weather and currents and row a boat across from Orcas. The mail for the Thatcher post office on Blakeley Island was dropped off at Port Stanley on Lopez's northeast shore and then had to be transported across the intervening channel.

By 1900 the San Juan Islands were served by two steamship companies, each with a contract for mail service as well as passenger transport. Having the contract meant not only that the steamships carried sacks of mail but also that an official mail clerk on the ship was responsible for the mail and sorted and prepared the mail and mail supplies prior to offloading at each stop. One route initially operated between Anacortes and Friday Harbor. In 1896 Andrew Newhall (1844-1915) took over that contract and extended the route to include West Sound, Orcas, Eastsound, Newhall (later Rosario), Olga, Doe Bay, and on the mainland Urban (in Skagit County), Fairhaven, and New Whatcom (Bellingham). The steamship Buckeye was a familiar sight on this route for many years and assured almost daily mail service. The other route, usually traversed by the Lydia Thompson or Rosalie, was from Seattle to Bellingham, stopping at Port Townsend, Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor, and Eastsound. The speed at which mail traveled to Seattle and other points south and east often depended on whether the north-south and east-west steamships could make timely connections with each other or mainland railroads. And, of course, the steamships were frequently delayed by the often-stormy Pacific Northwest winter weather. In 1896, for instance, Port Stanley and Blakeley had no mail service for days when the winds were so strong that the resulting waves destroyed the Port Stanley wharf, and no ships could land.

Even in good weather, the mail service did not always experience smooth sailing. Articles appeared in local newspapers calling for improvements. A lengthy 1902 editorial in the San Juan Islander reported that Roche Harbor at the north end of San Juan Island needed better service as the ship then delivering mail was a "constant aggravation" in the winter months and "no dependence whatever can be placed upon it" ("Our Mail Service"). Also noted was the need to provide better mail service to Waldron and Shaw Islands, preferably by adding Lopez to the Buckeye's route and creating a new, thrice-weekly star route to those two islands from Lopez. The editor opined that the overall cost of mail service had been halved in the previous few years and "If the saving thus effected were expended in extensions of the postal service many people would be benefited and the settlement and development of localities now greatly isolated would receive a much-needed impetus" ("Our Mail Service"). Requests for other stops and services were frequent. Contract disputes arose and schedule changes were problematic. In 1911, for example, it was announced that Newhall and the San Juan Navigation Company, which had been providing some rather unsatisfactory service, would be splitting a contract involving separate boats and altered routes and schedules. The notification appeared in the Friday Harbor Journal under the article's dramatic subheading: "San Juan Navigation Co. in the Throes of Death" ("Mail to Receive ...").

Rural Free Delivery (RFD)

Once the mail arrived at island post offices, there was still the issue of distribution. For many residents, this meant periodic lengthy, time-consuming trips to town, but relief was on the way. As early as 1891 the energetic U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker (1838-1922) envisioned a postal delivery service for rural residents similar to that enjoyed by city dwellers. "He thought it made more sense for one person to deliver mail than for 50 people to ride into town to collect their mail," and emphasized that "[b]usinesses could expand their markets," while residents "needed the important information provided by newspapers yet did not always have time" for trips to town to obtain them ("Rural Free Delivery," USPS website). For several years Congress balked at even a limited experiment, citing the anticipated huge expense, poor rural road conditions, and likely disinterest of the few potential patrons. Eventually Congress budgeted enough to conduct an experimental trial in 1896. The extremely positive result led communities all over the country to flood the Post Office Department with requests for the experimental service, which quickly spread nationally. It became a permanent service in 1902 with the title Rural Free Delivery (RFD). The word "free" was officially dropped in 1906, but the acronym lived on.

Among those most enthusiastic about the potential for customers and marketing opportunities were big-city newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, eager to reach new readers, encouraged islanders to seek the new service. In 1904, some Lopez residents signed a petition for RFD service (which would only be provided if at least 100 heads-of-households requested it and the route would be at least 24 miles long). They had been persuaded by newspaper representatives that subscriptions to the paper would bring not just news but information about products from outside the islands that would be of interest and available through the mails. It was noted in the San Juan Islander that an island resident and someone from the Post-Intelligencer were busy distributing mailboxes to be installed for the new service. That October Lopez became the first of the islands to have an RFD route, out of the Richardson post office at the south end of the island.

On Orcas Island residents were more skeptical of the benefits versus potential negative impacts of RFD. The Post-Intelligencer agent circulated a petition for the service linking, as on Lopez, the prospective RFD route with a subscription to the paper and a government-approved mailbox. Some West Sound residents, however, expressed fears that having the RFD would eliminate the need for a West Sound post office and possibly reduce steamboat service. They pointed out that the village had a post office, store, lumber mill, box factory, excellent steamboat landing accessible all year and two steamers daily except Sunday, and that losing any or many of these would be a poor exchange for the RFD service. One outraged objector huffed, "The city papers and mail-order stores are the most persistent advocates of rural mail routes. If the great department stores of the large cities had their way it would only be a question of time when the country merchant, like the Indians of the plains, the buffalo, the fur seal and the sockeye salmon would be practically extinct" ("Rural Delivery on Orcas ..."). Nevertheless, Orcas RFD service began the following year -- from the Eastsound post office.

In 1907 the Post Office Department issued detailed new rules for RFD service, covering the carriers, mail handling, acceptable post boxes, post-office oversight, and other aspects of the service. Carriers were responsible for providing their own horses and vehicles "so constructed as to thoroughly shelter and protect mail from damage or loss" (Instructions for ..., 39). Manufacturers soon offered wagons fitted out for postal carriers with drawers for stamps, postal cards, and money orders; storage bins; sorting boxes; and other conveniences. Carriers were to "refrain from improper conduct, boisterous talking, and profanity; and shall not engage in lengthy conversations, nor loiter in post-offices or on their routes, and are prohibited from using intoxicants while in charge of the mail, or the drinking to excess at any time" (Instructions for ..., 14). Residents initially put out any convenient used container for a mailbox, occasionally resulting in sticky or oily mail when a rather casually cleaned tin previously filled with honey or lubricant was recycled as a mailbox. Often the mailboxes were placed so that the carrier had to alight to pick up or drop off mail. Specifications were quickly put in place concerning the size, material, construction, and placement of the boxes.

On San Juan Island, it not until April 1,1912, that an RFD route was established, although some mail had long been transported to Roche Harbor overland with a few mail drops along the way. The amount of mail certainly justified the need for the service. In 1911 the statistics for the month of May "were surprising to the postmaster himself, who is now convinced that he has been working harder than he thought he had" ("Month's Record ..."). Almost 21,000 pieces of incoming and more than 8,000 pieces of outgoing mail were handled, averaging more than 1,000 pieces of mail per day. An exam for a carrier was announced (carriers, like other post-office employees, had to pass a civil service examination). The successful candidate would earn $960 per year but had to post a $500 bond "for the faithful performance of his duty" ("R.F.D. Service ..."). Mailboxes were ordered from St. Louis.

Parcel Post Service

The following year brought yet another assist for rural and city residents alike, when Parcel Post service, with standard lower prices for packages based on size and weight, was inaugurated. Nationally, this was an overwhelming success -- 1,594 post offices handled more than four million packages in the first five days of service. Islanders now found it less expensive to shop by mail from the many catalogs soon advertised in the local newspapers. In the Friday Harbor Journal, ads appeared for products including Kow Kure for sick cows from Lyndonville, Vermont; Putnam Fadeless Dyes of Quincy, Illinois; W. L. Douglas Shoes of Brockton, Massachusetts, for men, women, and boys; Ferry's Seed for vegetables and flowers from Detroit; and Tower's Fish Brand Slickers from Boston and Toronto. The sheer number of items needing delivery was an increasing problem; mail-order houses were doing a booming business. And it was now more economical for island farmers and fishermen to ship to markets on the mainland, since acceptable parcels could include butter, lard, fish, fruit, vegetables, berries, and even eggs, queen bees, live insects, and dried reptiles, provided that the perishable products were appropriately packed "so that nothing can escape" ("The Parcels Post").

Parcels were initially limited to a weight of 11 pounds, but over the first year that weight limit was increased several times until by December it had reached 50 pounds, to the dismay of many carriers. A former head of the Washington Rural Letter Carriers Association complained that such an increase in the total weight put in the mail wagons would require the carriers to use heavier drays and/or an additional horse to pull the extra weight. But he also noted that the real problem was the sheer total bulk of items requiring delivery, an issue much exacerbated, he grumbled, "when a half a dozen women on the same route get ordering spring or fall hats at the same time, then the rural carrier has to just about ride one of the horses to give the millinery room" ("Fifty Pound ...").

Islanders gratefully received more frequent, expanded, and reliable postal services through the ensuing decades of road improvements; transportation upgrades from horse-drawn wagons to cars and trucks, steamships to ferries; and the increasing use of technology to process and track the mail.

However, even in the twenty-first century San Juan County's post offices and carriers still occasionally cope with tsunamis of mail and packages, as islanders increasingly rely on internet purchasing of everything from appliances to zinnia seeds. In the holiday season of 2023 so many pallets of packages arrived on the islands for delivery that the post offices were overwhelmed, and many residents received their mail only two or three days a week. Carriers worked up to 12 hours a day trying to keep up with the deluge of mail and packages. In typical island fashion, "the community [rallied] behind their postal workers. On Lopez, the elementary school decorated the local post office to help boost workers' spirits, and at the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce meeting Dec. 6, [a business owner] suggested dropping off non-sugary food items to thank the workers who may not have time to eat. Others suggested giving gift certificates from local businesses for win-win support" (Spaulding). Islanders will continue to meet future postal service challenges in their rural, isolated county with that determination and spirit of mutual aid that necessarily characterize so much of island living.


Olga: 125 Years -- Memories and Potlucks ed. by Irene Barfoot O'Neill (Olga: Olga Community Club, 1996), 61; Images of America: Orcas Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006), 7-9, 29-30, 32-3, 35-8; Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: Island County, San Juan County (Friday Harbor: Lopez Island Historical Society, 1976), 38-62; Instructions for the Guidance of Postmasters and Carriers in the Conduct of the Rural Delivery Service (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Post Office Department, 1907), 5-6, 14-7, 25-6, 39, 41, 45, 52; "Mail to Receive a Change," Friday Harbor Journal, January 5, 1911, p. 1; "Still an Unsettled Condition," Ibid., December 14, 1911, p. 1; "Rural Route to Be Established," Ibid., January 18, 1912, p. 1; "R.F.D. Route for San Juan," Ibid., February 8, 1912, p. 1; "Rural Carrier Examination," Ibid., March 7, 1912, p. 1; Heather Spaulding, "Post Office Working Overtime to Deliver Onslaught of Packages," Journal of the San Juan Islands, December 13, 2023, pp. 1, 7; "Mail Service for Edwards," The Islander, March 14, 1895, p. 3; "The Thompson's Mail Route," Ibid., July 18, 1895, p. 3; "Thatcher Post Office," Ibid., July 18, 1895, p. 3; "Local and Personal," Ibid., January 23, 1896, p. 3; advertisements for Str. Buckeye and Str Lydia Thompson, Ibid., February 27, 1896, p. 2; "Local and Personal," Ibid., March 5, 1896, p. 3; "Local and Personal," Ibid., September 10, 1896, p. 3; "Rural Delivery," San Juan Islander, January 2, 1902, p. 1; "Our Mail Service," Ibid., December 11, 1902, p. 1; "Rural Delivery on Orcas Island," Ibid., September 17, 1904, p. 1; "Lopez Island," Ibid., October 1, 1904, p. 8; "Free Rural Mail Service on Orcas," Ibid., April 29, 1905, p. 1; "Rural Parcels Post," Ibid., December 14, 1907, p. 4; "Rural Parcels Post," Ibid., February 15, 1908, p. 3; "Veteran Mail Clerk on Steamer Rosalie Found Dead at His Post of Duty," Ibid., October 15, 1909, p. 1; "Stanleyites Up in Arms," Ibid., May 27, 1910, p. 1; "Mail Service Mixup," Ibid., July 1, 1910, p. 1; Ibid., February 3, 1911, p. 4; "Month's Record of Local Mail Handled," Ibid., June 9, 1911, p. 1; "R.F.D. Service to Begin April 1," Ibid., February 9, 1912, p. 1; "Rural Carrier Examination," Ibid., March 8, 1912, p. 1; "San Juan Island," Ibid., March 22, 1912, p. 5; "The Parcels Post," Ibid., January 10, 1913, p. 1; "Parcel Post Rule Would Benefit First Two Rate Zones," Ibid., August 1, 1913, p. 1; "Fifty Pound Parcel Post Bothers Rural Mail Carriers," Ibid., December 19, 1913, p. 1; "Rural Free Delivery," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 6, 1900, p. 9; Waldon Fawcett, "Rural Free Delivery," (reprint from Harper's Weekly), Ibid., September 16, 1900, p. 32; "Spread of the Rural Free Delivery System," Yakima Herald, March 18, 1903, p. 10; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Stagecoach and Steamboat Travel in Washington's Early Days" (by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin), "Lopez Island -- Thumbnail History" (by Kathryn Nass Ciskowski), "Orcas Island -- Thumbnail History" (by Phil Carter), "Advertising Goods and Services to the San Juan Islands Community, 1909" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), and "Warbass, Edward (1825-1906)" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), www.http// (accessed January 18, 2024); Sarah Pruitt, "How the US Post Office Has Delivered the Mail Through the Decades," History Channel website accessed January 16, 2024 (; "Washington: Dates That First Rural Routes Were Established at Post Offices, Through 1904," 2008, United States Postal Service (USPS) website accessed January 12, 2024 (; "Rural Free Delivery," 2013, USPS website accessed January 16, 2024 (; Winifred Gallagher, "A Brief History of the United States Postal Service," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2020 (; Rickie Longfellow, "Back in Time: Transportation in America's Postal System," Federal Highway Administration Highway History website accessed January 16, 2024 (; "The U.S. Post Office Begins Parcel Post Service," website accessed January 16, 2024 (; "Governor Isaac I. Stevens Letter to Postmaster James Campbell ..., December 17, 1853," University of Washington Libraries website accessed January 13, 2024 (; "What Is a Star Route?" Smithsonian National Postal Museum website accessed January 6, 2024 (; Lana Tupponce, "RFD: Marketing to a Rural Audience," Smithsonian National Postal Museum website accessed January 14, 2024 (; Steve Potash, "Pacific Mail Steamship Company," FoundSF website accessed January 24, 2024 (

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