Owney the postal dog rides again

Owney is photographed with his fellow U.S. Railway Mail Service workers in the 1890s.
Owney is photographed with his fellow U.S. Railway Mail Service workers in the 1890s. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum

It's nothing new that Norwich City Historian Dale Plummer will lead another walking tour of downtown Norwich in August. But this tour will be different, and he needs help.

To mark the "dog days of August," Plummer wants to re-enact visits to Norwich in the 1890s by Owney, the famous world traveling postal dog.

Plummer is looking for an "Owney clone" to accompany him on two walking tours of downtown Norwich Aug. 10 and 17 starting at 10 a.m. Plummer is working with local animal control officers and shelters and is asking friends and dog lovers if they know of an Owney look-alike - a medium-sized scruffy tan and white wire fox terrier type.

"A lot of these buildings were here at the time," Plummer said. "My plan is to translate what Owney is thinking as we go along. He was here several times in the 1890s. We may not have our Owney clone with us the entire time, depending on how hot it is."

The Norwich Post Office at the time was located on lower Main Street, but Plummer plans to start the tour at the current Norwich Post Office at 340 Main St.

Owney the postal dog apparently made several trips to Norwich, along with stops in New London, Putnam and Jewett City during his travels across the country in the 1890s. Owney would ride in mail cars on trains and get off at whatever stops seemed to interest him at the time. He would follow postal clerks to the local post office, visit businesses and hotels and always paid special attention to the mailbags.

"He only rides in mail cars," said Nancy Pope, curator/historian of the National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "He was fiercely protective of the mail. If a mailbag dropped on the ground, he wouldn't let anyone touch it until a uniformed mail clerk came."

A New York Sun newspaper story on Jan. 7, 1891, described Owney's first visit to Norwich the day before. He hopped off the train as bags were tossed from the mail car to an "amazed and slightly frightened clerk, Henry Kelly." The clerk aboard the train reassured Kelly and told him to just take Owney to the post office and see to his needs.

"Postmaster Caruthers and all the postal clerks as soon as they heard the dog's history made much of him," the news story said, "petted and fed him and he was taken about town to places of interest. He manifested extreme reluctance to go far from the Post Office, however, and was back there in time to escort the next mail to the depot of the Norwich & Worcester Railroad. He went north on the 2 o'clock train in the postal car sitting on a pile of pouches and there was plenty of applause for him from people on the station platform."

Owney's fame grew so rapidly that it has become difficult for today's historians to separate the real dog from the legend, Pope said. By some newspaper accounts, the dog was an improbable 17 years old when he started his international tours, while the many popular children's stories of the time called him "a pup."

A New York Sun story on Dec. 3, 1894, on Owney's Thanksgiving night visit to New London from Providence described how Owney had lost an eye in Canada a couple years earlier. Not true, Pope said.

"That is a good example of the journalistic fun that reporters were having," Pope said of the myth. "It was a story that was repeated a few times but then died out."

Owney's postal career started in Albany, N.Y., in 1888. He was owned by a postal clerk, and either the clerk left the post office or just left the dog there, Pope said. Owney continued to hang around the Albany Post Office. Perhaps because of the dingy, musty smell, Owney favored lying and sleeping on unwashed canvas mailbags. Postal clerks probably carried the same scent. Soon, he accompanied clerks onto the trains.

Albany apparently attached a special tag to Owney's collar urging clerks on Owney's stops to "return to Albany." That started a new trend. Other post offices would attach their own tags to Owney's collar. Hotels would give him room key tags, and businesses eventually had custom tags made for Owney.

Soon, his collar became too heavy and someone made him a vest jacket to wear and bear the hundreds of tags he received in his travels, like stickers proudly added to a well-traveled suitcase.

The Postal Museum has many surviving tags, including two from Connecticut - one marked "NY-NH&H RR Train Men's House 113, New Haven" and the other "Holmes Booth & Haydens No. 12."

Newspapers and politicians entered the Owney tag war, Pope said. A newspaper would attach a tag boasting that Owney always came to that newspaper office first or Owney "only reads our newspaper," Pope said.

Newspaper reporters often greeted Owney at the train, and hotel managers offered him steak dinners.

In December 1895, a citizens' booster club in Tacoma, Wash., decided Owney should take a trip around the world. Accompanied by an escort, Owney visited China and Japan aboard a steamship and traversed the new Suez Canal before making his way home to New York City and back to Tacoma. The trip took about 118 days.

On his more mundane journeys, postal clerks on the trains would take care of Owney.

"After a while, they didn't need to, because he was so famous, they had food waiting for him at every stop," Pope said.

Owney's story appealed to kids as well as to middle- and working-class Americans, many of whom rarely traveled by train or boat beyond their own environs. The first major story about Owney appeared in St. Nicholas magazine, a popular children's magazine. Unfortunately, Pope said, that story had many inaccuracies that carried on for years. Children's fiction books soon followed, and numerous newspaper stories carried the myths forward.

Owney died on June 11, 1897, of a gunshot wound in Toledo, Ohio. The National Postal Museum's history of Owney said the dog apparently became ill-tempered, but "exact circumstances were not satisfactorily reported."

Mail clerks immediately started raising money to have Owney's body preserved. In 1911, the Post Office Department transferred Owney's stuffed body to the Smithsonian Institution. The National Postal Museum opened in 1993 in the former Washington, D.C. Post Office.

"We certainly have our fun with it," Pope said. "Owney tweets, talks about new exhibits. He's fun and we enjoy having him."

In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service celebrated Owney with a new Forever stamp that sold out fast and renewed interest in Owney's story. On the eve of the stamp's release, Owney made the cover of Linn's Stamp News, a magazine for stamp collectors. The magazine touted the stamp release and described first-day commemorative envelope covers and cancelation marks.

To mark the upcoming 20th anniversary celebration of the National Postal Museum, the museum took Owney to a taxidermy specialist and had him groomed and touched up, Pope said.

The renewed attention once again has brought Owney's story to light among today's children's authors.

"There are so many children's books done on Owney," she said. "There are four or six just in the past 10 years. And when the stamp came out, that inspired even more. It's a great kids' story, and if you love dogs, it's a perfect story."

For information about the Norwich walking tours or if you have an Owney look-alike, contact Norwich City Historian Dale Plummer at (860) 949-5784.

An illustration of Owney depicts the famed postal dog atop a mail bag.
An illustration of Owney depicts the famed postal dog atop a mail bag. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum
One of Owney's many tour tags is inscribed
One of Owney's many tour tags is inscribed "Awarded to Owney The Globe Trotter" and dated Dec. 8-11, 1896. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum
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