Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fulton Chain Steamers 101: History of the Mail Boats

Fulton Chain Mail BoatProbably the most unique post office in the United States was the postal station operating in boats on the Fulton Chain during the first half of the 20th century.  Visitors today can actually relive this operation by riding the “President Harrison”, the current mail boat operated by Old Forge Lake Cruises.  Though no longer a post office station, this vessel delivers mail in the same fashion as that provided by Capt. Jack Sheppard on his steamer “Fulton”, begun during the Benjamin Harrison administration (1889-1893).

When the Forge House was built in 1871, it replaced Arnold’s as the major stopover for visitors and campers to the Fulton Chain lakes.  As the hotel and the region’s popularity grew, more visitors built camps and stayed longer in the North Woods.  These individuals wanted their mail forwarded to a secure location available to them or for pickup by their guides. Then, as reported by the Boonville Herald in January 1882, the House of Representatives enacted legislation that established a “post-route” between Boonville and the Forge House via Moose River Settlement.  Charles M. Barrett, Forge House proprietor and later the builder of the Bald Mountain House, was appointed as the Fulton Chain’s first Postmaster effective May 2 1883.

Initially, mail was carried by stage from Boonville to the Forge House, but the route was changed in the spring of 1884 to originate from Port Leyden.  After Boonville boat builder H. Dwight Grant circulated a petition among the John Brown’s Tract visitors, the mail route reverted to the original route.  “Charley Phelps slings the mail bag on his buckboard now with a good deal of spirit and takes his seat on the bag bound that the route shan’t be moved again unless he is moved with it. The changing back of the route is appreciated by tourist and all having occasion to receive their mail in the woods”.

Two events occurred in 1888 pertinent to our topic:  the Forge House was purchased by Dr. Alexander Crosby and Samuel Garmon in April and guide Jack Sheppard launched the “Fulton” in May.  With the Forge House changing ownership, its new proprietor, Joseph Harvey, became postmaster. In 1889, stage lines carrying Fulton Chain mail were again leaving from Port Leyden.  Garmon, Crosby and G. H. P. Gould built the “Peg Leg Railroad” which transferred cargo to the deCamp steamer “Fawn”, bringing Fulton Chain mail from the Moose River station during the summer months.  Under Harvey’s tenure, the “Fulton” became the first mail boat on the Fulton Chain.

By 1890, Jack Sheppard was assisting the postmaster with “assorting the voluminous mail for the camps up the lakes…At the Forge he does most of the work of a large post office while someone else gets the pay.  He stops at every camp.”  In 1892, Old Forge’s post office was upgraded to a money order post office with Mrs. Josiah Wood as postmistress.  Sheppard still carried “the mail to camps on the lakes in bags provided for that purpose.”  At the end of the year, Sheppard sold the “Fulton” but the new owner continued to deliver the mail.  Also, Mrs. Josiah Wood now operated in a post office separate from the Forge House.

The “Fulton” continued carrying the mail until June 1899 when the Crosby Transportation Company purchased the “W. S. Webb”.  This steamer took the schedule of the Company’s smallest vessel, the “Zip”, which would now become the first Fulton Chain boat solely dedicated  as a “special mail and express boat” by Company Superintendent Clarence Rivenburg.  The “Zip” was a steamer from Sylvan Beach brought to the Fulton Chain in 1894 by John Sprague and Will Sperry.  In 1898, the “Zip” collided with the “C. L. Stowell” (later the “Nehasane”), then the largest steamer on the Chain, the “Zip” sank and was later raised.  Its use as a mail boat ended after one month’s duty in late July 1899 when a log became stuck between its propeller and rudder and broke both parts.  The “Fulton” again added mail delivery to its passenger and freight functions.

fulton chain mail-boatA Utica Sunday Journal article in August 1899 labeled “Rushing the Mailbag” described the “great scrambling for the mail pouch”, that the “rushes occur at the private camp landings more than at the hotels”.  When the “Fulton” neared the dock, quite often the “race was on” the moment when the mail bag touched the dock. A girl falling off the dock at one camp’s rush was rescued by a “male of a different kind.”

When Dr. Webb’s Adirondack and St. Lawrence railroad reached Fulton Chain in July 1892 and replaced the faltering “Peg Leg Railroad”, not only were visitors glad to have more reliable mail service, the Chain campers would now benefit from the services of the Postal Service’s Railway Mail Service.  Railroads were approved for transporting mail in 1832 in coordination with stage routes.  In 1838, Congress designated all railroads as postal routes and two years later added mail agents to accompany the mail.  The first (RPO) “post office on wheels” occurred in 1862 for letters and expanded to other types of mail in 1869.  In 1930, 30,000 trains carried mail; by 1965 only 190 trains carried mail.  The last surviving railway post office, between Washington, D. C. and New York, made its last run on June 30, 1977.

Dr. Webb’s railroad operated special “mail trains” and this service moved closer to the Fulton Chain lakes with the Old Forge Company’s building of the two-mile spur connecting Fulton Chain to the Old Forge dock in 1896.  Later, after failing in its efforts to stop the opening of the Raquette Lake Railway, the Old Forge Company sold its steamers and railroad to Dr. Webb and the Railway’s owners in April 1901.  In addition to repairing, upgrading and renaming four former Crosby Transportation Company steamers, Dr. William Seward Webb obtained approval to operate the first “floating post office”.

Dr. Webb prevailed upon the Postal Service to establish a railway mail express office that would travel by boat along the first four lakes of the Fulton Chain. In July 1901, C. W. C. Howe, chief clerk of the U.S. railway mail service, inspected the Fulton Navigation Company’s steamers and navigation docks.  He soon gave official approval to a contract with the Company to establish the “Inlet and Old Forge RPO” staffed by mail clerks operating on “safe and suitable steamboats”.  The mail would be received directly from the train’s mail service, sorted by the clerks on the boat and placed in mail bags for Fulton Chain camps and hotels as far as the head of Fourth Lake.  The boat’s staff postmarked outgoing mail with stamps marked “TR” and the numbers 1, 2, 3 or 4 depending on which morning or afternoon outgoing or returning mail boat trip picked up the mail.  The service was inaugurated on July 24, 1901 and expected to operate until the middle of September.  Mail for the Eagle Bay and Inlet post offices would be carried by the Raquette Lake Railway until mail boat operations began.

The first steamer used for this new service was the “Mohegan”, the larger and refurbished “Fulton”, which had been the first mail boat on the Fulton Chain.  But this steamer’s use was temporary until the smaller “Old Forge” was repaired, refitted and made suitable for use as a Federal mail boat.  The “Old Forge” was formerly the “Zip”.

The “Mohegan” operated as mail boat during the first year of RPO service, but in late October it hit a stump in the channel and sank.  The “Old Forge” was run as a charter vessel during 1901 until its conversion to a mail boat were completed.  The “Mohegan”, with Fred Hunce as mail clerk, was the mail boat until some time during the 1902 season when the “Old Forge” began its long new life as a mail boat.  In 1903, the “Old Forge” was said to service 103 camps and hotels on the Chain.  The “Old Forge” was able to service the “Mohegan” again in 1904 what it towed the latter steamer back to Old Forge after its engine broke while carrying dam inspection officials.  Starting in May 1906, mail for Inlet and Eagle Bay residents would be carried by the Raquette Lake Railway directly to the post offices in those villages.  Later in 1906, Leon Hoffman, captain of the “Old Forge”, was asked by Chester Gillette at the Arrowhead Hotel to retrieve his laundry package left at the Old Forge post office.  This attempted errand helped the authorities locate Gillette after they learned of the Grace Brown murder.

When the contract for the mail service was renewed in 1923, Postmaster Winterbotham permitted the mail boat to begin operating May 25 instead of June 15 as was then customary and to run until October 3.  Low water in August that year resulted in the “Old Forge” being grounded in a dangerous angle on its return trip after leaving a camp.  Its hull was only scratched but the mail was transferred to another boat.  In July 1924, the “Irocosia” substituted for a period when the “Old Forge” went to dry dock after running aground at Sunset Camp, Third Lake.  The “Irocosia”, built at Blue Mountain Lake in 1882, operated on the Eckford Chain, then on Raquette Lake in the 1890s and was returned to the Eckford Chain around 1898.  These moves were made by log sled, but in 1910 the “Irocosia” was shipped by train to the Fulton Chain where she ended her days as a freight boat.

Death occurred on the route when railway mail clerk Cecil Sheely drowned on July 11, 1926 after falling while reaching out for mail at the George Allen camp near the Onondaga Dock. Sheely leaned against the rope holding his weight, its splicing parted and he fell into the water.  Another clerk, E. J. Hasselman, saw him fall and quickly informed Capt. Ned Ball who returned the boat and dove into the water.  Sheely sank four times and Ball tried to hold the body up, but he could not bring it to the surface in time.

Current Fulton Chain Mail BoatThe motoring public and local officials rejoiced over the completion of the paving of the dirt road from Old Forge to Eagle Bay during 1926, but the mail boat service continued. In 1929, for the first time since the Railway Mail Express contract was let in 1901, the service was awarded to a new contractor and the “Old Forge” went out of service.  That year the contract was awarded to Leon Burnap, and his brother Don was named as the operator.  Their service began effective July 1, 1929.  The new mail boat was the “Miss America” built by John Rivett according to Don Burnap in “Heartwood”.

In 1930, for some unexplained reason, Reilly Campbell was the clerk and Stephen Welychko was the pilot.  Welychko and fellow Ukrainian World War I veteran Stephen Bazliv were recuperating in Old Forge from tuberculosis when Bazliv’s rifle accidentally discharged after a hunting trip and shortly after he died on October 26, 1921.  According to Joseph Grady, Welychko heard Bazliv’s dying request that he be buried in the North Woods and Bazliv became the first burial in Old Forge’s new cemetery. In a July 4, 1922 ceremony well attended and reported, Basliv was honored in a more formal memorial ceremony.  Welychko was part of the firing squad that fired a three gun salute.

Because other names are mentioned in newspaper articles, I do not know why Donald Burnap is not always listed as the “operator” of the “Miss America”.  J. T. Evans was named as “in charge” in 1932 with L. G. Kelley as clerk.  Newspaper articles mentioning Leon as the operator may have been referring to Donald.  As late as 1942, Leon is mentioned as pilot.  In a 1947 article, Donald is listed as the “captain-owner”.

Water levels were down so far in 1942 that there was discussion with the Railway Mail Service about discontinuing the mail boat’s operations. Campowners sent letters to the Railway Mail Service demanding that it continue.  Service had been delayed in 1941 temporarily by low water levels.  At the time, the Black River Regulating District drew down water at the Old Forge dam before the summer season started.  Dredging of the channel between Third and Fourth Lakes in 1939 had considerably increased the drawn volume of water.  The mail boat did not operate until July 1 in 1942.  In April 1943, the District formally agreed with local authorities to maintain water levels between June 2 and Labor Day each year.

For the remainder of Burnap’s involvement, Marylee Armour’s Heartwood is the primary source.  Donald obtained the Railway Express Mail contract in 1951, brother Leon clerked for him briefly and a new mail boat, “MISS USAMA”, was used from 1951 to 1960.  In 1956, the mail boat was placed under the Old Forge Post Office’s jurisdiction and its service reverted to rural mail service and no longer required mail clerks.  A smaller boat, “MISS USAMA II” was used from 1960 to 1969 and finally, from 1969 to 1975, the “MISS USAMA III” became Burnap’s last mail boat.  At the height of his service, Burnap claimed to have 208 patrons; in 1975 the number would be 75 patrons.  Donald Burnap passed away on December 25, 1987.

Donald Burnap still held the delivery contract in 1975 when increasing blindness forced him to subcontract it to Don Lawson for the remaining two years of the current contract, bid in 4 year terms.  Presently, the mail is delivered on the diesel-powered “President Harrison” which also carries up to 10 passengers for this historic, informal cruise departing from the Old Forge Lake Cruises dock.

Middle photo courtesy Old Forge Lake Cruises. Photo below courtesy Timber Lane Lodge, Old Forge, NY.


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Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006. His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

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