History Template

Early Mail - The Only Link

Living in the Animas Valley in 1876 –we paid 25 cents for a letter and we’re lucky to get it; it was our only contact with the outside world. Only twice during that whole winter was mail delivered to Trimble Springs – by way of the deer trail between here and Silverton via snow shoes. During good weather, mail was delivered once or twice a month.

Martha A. Roberts,
Second woman settler of the Animas Valley, Hermosa, Colo

While stagecoaches were standard transportation for much of the nation, the mountains and rugged terrain of the San Juans exemplified the impossibility of normal transport. With Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in mind, the United States Congress conceded that on certain mail routes the Postmaster General might contract to private companies to have the mail carried without specifying the means of carrying it. Mail routes to which this arrangement applied were designated in the records with asterisks and came to be known as Star Routes.

Private express lines took on these mail contracts and provided a vital service for the earliest miners and pioneers. While the government delivered mail to the principal routes, these express companies serviced the government’s void and provided mail delivery to the earliest post offices of Southwest Colorado, all of which opened in 1875: Silverton, Howardsville, Lake City, Animas Forks, Eureka, Ouray and Parrott City. The express charge for this private carriage of letters was twenty five cents – paid by the recipient. This was in addition to the regular United States postage paid by the sender, which was three cents on a half ounce (single page) letter. The carriage of letters and parcels could be a lucrative business, undoubtedly more dependable than prospecting itself. In 1859, when one of these private expresses arrived in Denver, hours were often consumed while mail was delivered to those standing in a line blocks long; the carriage charge was often paid in gold dust which had to be laboriously weighed out. Men with money would often buy a front position in line from some person whose time had a smaller commercial value.

By 1875 Ouray had become the home of mining supervisors, engineers and their wives. Ouray was 80 miles off the beaten track with no way of getting mail. Otto Mears volunteered to perform delivery of mail to Ouray (in addition to his other mail contracts) at $30 a trip, once a week. His carrier never missed a week until the snow became treacherous; very deep and very soft. The people in Ouray were now ordering tobacco, coffee and sugar as well as ladies’ hats and drygoods — all by mail. Inevitably, these items got rather smashed during the trip because the exhausted carrier would sit on the toboggan. The recipients of Ouray complained to the Postal Department in Washington which then mandated that mail was to be carried on snowshoes and that toboggans should not be used to deliver ladies’ hats and general supplies. In March, 1876, the snow got so bad that neither dogs nor snowshoes could be used, and the carriers quit hauling mail to Ouray.

The general populace was very grateful and well aware of the hazards faced by mail carriers by the newspaper headlines of the day: San Miguel Carrier Missing Nov 1, 1879, Mail Remnants found Nov 8, 1879, Volunteer Carriers Dwindle Jan 24, 1880, Carrier Freezes to Death, Feb. 28, 1880, All Winter Crossings Made on Snowshoes April, 1880, Twelve Sacks of Back Mail delivered May, 1880, Silverton-Ouray Carrier Feared Lost in Avalanche Mar 1, 1884, Ouray Carrier Trapped by Slides April 4, 1885, Mail Transferred to Hand Cars to get by Avalanche; Other Carried on Foot, Mail Brought through on Hand Car after Rockslide June 27, 1885, Ophir Carrier’s Remains Still Not Found, Red Mountain Mailman Killed in Avalanche, April 24, 1886, Roberts’ Mail Bag Located May 1, 1886, Ouray Mineral Point Carrier Survives Slide March 3, 1887.

Door to door mail service was unheard of in rural Colorado until the 1900’s. The post offices were the sole point of delivery and their hours of operation were generous by today’s standards. In July, 1883 the Silverton post office was open between 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11 – 2 p.m. Animas City was likewise. As a general policy of the day, the Postmaster would pay the newspapers to publish long lists of people who had uncalled for letters waiting for them at the post office. The La Plata Miner, Silverton’s paper in 1876 published some 200 names of recipients in the September 23rd issue. When these individuals claimed their advertised letter, they owed an additional penny over and above the 25 cents charged by the private express company.

At $10,000 a year, Mr. Steiniger secured the government contract in 1880 for hauling mail on the Star Route from Silverton to Animas City and onto Parrott City. For the daily schedule then in place, three changes of horses were required each way between Silverton and Animas City. A man started with buckboard wagon and team; made his first change ten miles South of Silverton where he might take four horses, made his second change at Cascade Hill and his third at Rockwood tying up at Animas City. Twenty to thirty horses might be used in a day for both coming and going routes, according to the size of load and road conditions. The horses were very much afraid of the many bears. The schedule did not work so well in winter. Often, a dog sled was necessary to traverse the many snow slides south of Silverton. Frank Schneider, the carrier would pile mail on the sled, perch himself on top and be pulled by his four big Newfoundland dogs. These same dogs worked to cart water in Silverton when not needed for mail delivery. In the first six years of the silver boom here in Southwest Colorado, from 1875 to 1881, mail was a rare event. By December 8, 1881, after the railroad had arrived in Durango for some four months, the arrival of mail had become a nonchalent occurrence as reflected by the San Juan Herald, December 8, 1881: The buckboard reaches Silverton from Cascade about six p.m. each day, being in regularly and on time. We have no cause to complain of the mail service here from any direction. For instance we get mail from the far East as quickly as passengers can travel which is as good as can be expected.


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