Sunday, September 12, 2021

Run Aground! - Postal History Sunday

Another week is at its end while a new one begins.  That can only mean one thing on the Genuine Faux Farm blog.  It's time for Postal History Sunday!

Postal History Sunday (PHS) is a place where the farmer (Rob) can unabashedly share a hobby he enjoys.  In the process, I usually learn something new - and I hope those who read it also pick up a thing or two, even while being entertained.  All who wish to join me here are welcome.  It doesn't matter if you collect stamps or postal history.  I do my best to write these posts so they are of interest to people who have had years collecting as well as any who might like to read something different, even if they do not want to join the hobby.

As always, I am willing to accept criticisms, corrections and questions.  Feel free to leave a comment or use the contact form at the right on this page.


A Whole Month?

If you have been reading PHS for a while, or if you are someone who knows what I like to collect most, you will recognize that postal history items that have a 24 cent stamp from the 1861 issue of stamps in the United States are my specialty.  You might also notice that I like postal history items of all sorts, especially if there is a story I can decipher as I research.  This week, I get to share something that has both a good story and a 24 cent stamp!

Years ago, an acquaintance of mine showed me a scan of this item.  They had just added it to their collection and they knew I liked postal history with the 24 cent stamp.  Their interest was in the Galesburg, Illinois origin.  But, as I looked at the cover, I saw other reasons to be drawn to it.

The Galesburg June 10 postmark in blue and the July 10, 1867, Glasgow receiving postmark indicate an abnormally long journey to get to its destination. Galesburg was not terribly far from an exchange office (Chicago) and the Grand Trunk Railroad should have delivered the mailbag containing this letter to Quebec in no less than two days time from Chicago. The crossing of the Atlantic typically took no more than 10 to 12 days, thus this letter was delayed for nearly half a month.

Below is an example that left Green Bay, Wisconsin on August 12 and arrived on the Glasgow Packet August 29.  This would be a more typical date range.

When the date range is longer than expected, I usually smell a story that could be told!

Filling in the Timeline

Two postal markings with dates a month apart provided sufficient evidence for me to identify the voyage this letter took to get from Illinois to Scotland.  For those who don't like to read a bunch of text, I offer you this:

Ok.  There's text on the image too.  Never mind!

Once again, the first clue was the long voyage indicated by the two postmarks on the envelope.  The good news is that there are now many resources available to a postal historian to aid in the search for the reasons why the voyage might have been delayed.

Shipping tables compiled by Hubbard and Winter in their book (see reference 7) confirmed for me that the North American was scheduled to leave Quebec in the middle of June in 1867.  The footnotes provided in the book related much of the details seen above, which I could confirm in period newspapers. With the basics readily in hand, I was able to spend more time finding interesting details related to the story.

I frequently remind myself to be grateful for the work others have done and then shared so that others (including myself) might benefit.  I am particularly beholden to Dick Winter for his works on trans-Atlantic mail.

The letter was delivered to the post office in Galesburg, Illinois where the blue postmark was placed on the envelope.  The letter was sent by train to Chicago, which was one of the exchange post offices for mail to be sent to the United Kingdom.  The Chicago foreign mail clerk knew that the quickest route on that date would be through Canada with a sailing on the Allen Line of steamers.  So, the clerk put the red "3 cents" marking on the envelope and put the envelope in a mailbag with other items that were going to go to the UK.  

That is where the envelope stayed UNTIL it got to an exchange office at the destination country - in this case the exchange office was Glasgow - one month later.

The graphic above shows you all of the events that happened while this letter sat in that mailbag. 

Saint Lawrence Seaway Navigation

Navigating the Saint Lawrence Seaway could be tricky and it was not uncommon for ships to encounter difficulties in the 1800’s. In particular, the waters around Anticosti Island were most treacherous, with 106 recorded shipwrecks between 1870 and 1880 despite the existence of lighthouses by that time [1]. The sea lane was used for ocean traffic of all sorts, including the Allen Line mail packets.

For those who might not know, when I reference a "mail packet," I am merely talking about a ship that had a contract to carry the mail.  These ships also carried other cargo and/or passengers.  After all, a few bags of mail weren't going to fill up an ocean-going vessel.

The Perils of Anticosti 

Anticosti Island can be found at the mouth of the St Lawrence Seaway as it enters the Gulf of Lawrence. 

Louis Jolliet, an explorer who initially believed the Seaway would provide water crossing to the Pacific Ocean, was awarded ownership of the island for his service to New France. Starting in 1680, he ran a fur trading and fishing business from the north shore of the island until it was raided by New Englanders in 1690. After that, his son divided and oversaw operations on the island for the next 40 years [2]. 

By the 1860s, an estimated 2000 ships passed the island each summer but it was sparsely inhabited [1]. The island is now owned by the Quebec government, serving as a popular game and fishing reserve. 

Anticosti Island is not a small obstruction in the St Lawrence Seaway, having 360 miles of shoreline and covering 3100 square miles. It is surrounded by a reef that can reach out a mile and a half from the visible shoreline in places. The reef, combined with a strong current led to numerous shipwrecks resulting in losses lives and property [2].

Strong currents and reefs could certainly be mapped and lighthouses were built to help for nighttime navigation. However, experienced Seaway navigators recognized variations in compass readings could ALSO lead the unwary to run aground. An editorial to the Quebec Mercury in 1827 included observations from a mariner of that time:

“… it would be well that all ships at every opportunity should try experiments on the variation of the compass. I am fully of opinion that it does, and has increased. Since my first coming up the St. Lawrence, and very lately from experiments made, I found six degrees more variation than ever I expected, of my courses steered.” [3]

Wrecks on Anticosti Island from 1820-1911 by Department of Marine and Fisheries, Quebec Agency

These variations are known to be due to the shifting magnetic pole and its dramatic effect on compass readings as one goes further north on the globe. The treacherous nature of the waters around Anticosti caused many ships to employ a local navigator for the run into and out of the Seaway.

The Allan Line and the Mail

The Province of Canada was very interested in supporting a steamship company that based itself out of Canada rather than continuing to be tied to the United Kingdom’s Cunard Line. In 1855, the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company (known as the Allan Line) secured a contract to carry Canadian mail, which it proceeded to carry out upon the return of their ships from the Crimean War (Oct 5, 1853 - Mar 20, 1856) [4]. Allan Line ships departed Quebec (Riviere du Loup) in the summer when the St Lawrence Seaway was free of ice. During the winter months, the Allan Line left from Portland, Maine to cross the Atlantic.

The Canadian and United States governments reached an agreement in November of 1859 that granted the Allan Line a contract to carry American mail [7]. Mail from the United States was sorted and placed in secured mailbags in United States exchange offices (usually Detroit, Chicago or Portland).  Occasionally, a bag from the Boston exchange office (and rarely, New York) would also travel on the Allen Line steamers.

In most exchange offices, each piece of mail was hand stamped with a red (paid) or black (unpaid) marking that included the city name of the exchange office and a date. If you scroll back up to view the second cover I shared here, you will see a red Detroit exchange marking that includes the city, date and 3 cents credit.

Chicago, on the other hand, often employed a credit marking that gave the amount credited to the foreign mail service with the word ‘cents’ in an arc underneath.  But, Chicago typically did not include a marking with the city and date for letters bound for an Allan Line ship.

Mailbags left the Detroit and Chicago offices via the Grand Trunk Railroad to their Quebec (summer) or Portland (winter) port departures [5].

Mails sent from the United States to Britain were governed by the 1848 postal convention which remained in force until the end of 1867. Under this treaty, letters from the United States to Scotland required postage at the rate of 24 cents (1 shilling) for up to a half ounce of letter weight. 

The postage collected was split between the British and US postal services in the following manner: 5 cents for US surface mail, 16 cents for the country who contracted the mail packet and 3 cents for British surface mail [5]. The red “3 cents” marking indicated that 3 cents were owed to the British postal system by the US postal system. The Allan Line ship was under contract to carry mails with the United States, thus 16 cents were kept by the US to pay the Allan Line.

The North American 
The North American was a single screw, 1715 gross ton ship that was originally named the Briton at the point William Denny & Brothers laid the keel in 1855. The ship was launched as the North American on January 26, 1856 and took her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Quebec on April 23 of that same year. The ship was able to accommodate 425 passengers and served as one of the fleet of mail packets for the Allan Line. 

 In 1871, the ship was moved to a Liverpool – Norfolk – Baltimore route until it was sold in 1873. At this point, the ship was converted to a sailing vessel and was used as such until it went missing in 1885 during a trip from Melbourne to London [6].

On June 16 of 1867, the North American ran aground on the south shore reef of Anticosti Island outbound to the Atlantic Ocean from Quebec. All passengers and crew survived the incident, spending some time on the island. Accounts indicate that they enjoyed picnics of fresh trout and were treated well by a Mr. and Mrs. Burns, who lived on the island at that time. 

The home occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Burns was furnished with material from other wrecks and they had survived a shipwreck themselves fourteen years earlier [1]. The St George picked up the passengers and the mail, taking them to St. Johns, Newfoundland. 

The North American was successfully refloated and towed to Quebec for repairs, resuming its services to the Allan Line on November 12, 1868.

Present Day Story

Bringing all of this back to the present - if you will recall, I had mentioned that someone else was the caretaker for this piece of postal history when I first discovered the beginnings of what is an interesting story.  Once I shared my initial findings with the individual who shared the image with me, they arranged for me to become the new caretaker of this piece of history.  And, that, as you probably have guessed, encouraged me to continue digging into this story over the years.

The other good news is that this individual also found another cover with a 24 cent stamp for their collection not long afterwards.  

You have now had the opportunity to read my latest rendition of the story as I continue to learn more about it.  Will it be my last attempt?  That's unlikely as it has become one of my favorite postal artifacts in my collection over the years.


Thank you again for joining me for this latest offering of Postal History Sunday.  Have a good remainder of your day and an outstanding week to come.

Resources for today's PHS
[1]  Mackay, D. Anticosti: The Untamed Island, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
[2] Henderson, B. Anticosti Island, KANAWA Magazine, Winter 2003 Issue,, last viewed 1/15/06.
[3] Quebec Mercury #41, Tuesday, May 22, 1827, Page 241.
[4] Arnell, J.C. Steam and the North Atlantic Mails, Unitrade Press, 1986, p 224-5.
[5] Hargest, G.E. History of Letter Post Communication Between the United States and Europe 1845:1875, 2nd Ed, Quarterman Publications, 1975, p 133-136.
[6] Bonsor, N.R.P. North Atlantic Seaway, vol. 1, Prescott: T. Stephenson & Sons, 1955, p. 307.
[7] Hubbard, W.  & Winter, R.F. North Atlantic mail Sailings 1840-1875, U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, 1988, 129-30,148.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story, even for one who has no intentions of becoming a Postal Historian.


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