In my trek through Canada’s postal history, I’ve discovered a colourful array of similarly delightful details– dogsled, horse carts, penny farthings, and telegraphs. They all provided that glimpse into yesteryear that I enjoy reading about.

Benjamin Franklin. The name conjures images of kites in a lightning storm, American currency and the Declaration of Independence. Little did I know that he also led the first efforts to develop mail service in Canada. In 1763, he and John Foxcroft were jointly appointed as the first Deputy Postmasters of all His Majesty’s colonies  North America. They shared a salary of 600 pounds between them.

The first Canadian postal stamp, 1851.
Postal stamp, 1851.

When Canada came under British rule following the Treaty of Paris, Franklin launched post offices in Montreal and Trois Rivières. A monthly mail service ran between New York and Quebec.

Franklin reported to the House of Commons that, “The posts generally travel along the sea coasts, and only in a few cases do they go back into the country. Between Quebec and Montreal there is only one post per month. The inhabitants live so scattered and remote from each other in that vast country, that the posts cannot be supported amongst them. The English colonies, too, along the frontier, are very thinly settled.” In 1774, Benjamin Franklin was removed from office as a consequence of his sympathies with rebellious colonists in America.

delivery to rural outposts canada library archive
Mail delivery to rural outposts (source: Library and Archive of Canada)

By 1787 Empire Loyalists were quickly filling Eastern Canada. The demand for post offices grew in newly populated areas. At the time, regular mail service only extended as far as Kingston. It took three months for a letter to travel from Montreal to Toronto because the carriers could only cover 18 miles each day. The mail was usually transported by dogsled, sleighs and cutters during the winter months. Delivery was often more reliable when couriers could travel over frozen rivers and across the snow. At other times of the year, deliveries were made over difficult travel routes by wagon, and stagecoach. Some were made transported by boat along rivers and across lakes.

The flow of loyalists to Canada, post American Revolution, created a need for expanded postal service. Plans for growth weren’t realized until 1827 and in 1830, the postal system was extended to new villages and towns. The large expanse of Canada’s geography posed challenges to efficient communications. In spring and summer, the roads were a quagmire and impossible to navigate. Settlers depended on travellers to carry correspondence from other parts of the country.

Yukon stage coach following thaw in spring
Yukon stage coach following thaw in spring (source: Library and Archive of Canada)

Steam boats were contracted to carry mail and deliver letters to designated village businesses where settlers came to pick up their mail. In 1829, the Montreal Courant, had this to say about improved delivery service owing to steamboats:”On Saturday last, the Upper Canada line of stages performed the journey from Prescott to this city in about 17 hours, leaving the former place at a little before 3 a.m., and arriving here a few minutes before 8 in the evening. Not many years ago this journey occupied two, and sometimes three days, but owing to the great improvements made by Mr. Dickinson, the enterprising proprietor, by putting steamboats on the lakes St. Francis and St. Louis, and keeping his horses in excellent condition, it is now performed in little more than one-third of the time.

The mail was shipped in trunks shaped from heavy leather. A flap or small door on the top was held closed by chain and lock. The trunks were very heavy and the strength of two men was often required to lift them. The trunks contained small canvas bags, one for each town on the mail line.

Loaded mail wagon in Montreal, 1908 (source: Library and Archive of Canada)
Loaded mail wagon in Montreal, 1908 (source: Library and Archive of Canada)

On some occasions, mail was destroyed in transit. I did find a story about an Ontarian postmaster who operated the post office from inside his store. An overnight fire started in bake shop next door, spread to his building and destroyed the bag of undelivered letters. In yet another incident, a post master left the mail bag on top of the wood stove. His brother didn’t notice the bag there when he lit the stove in the morning. The letters went up in flame.

Post office located in a pharmacy Canada location unknown (source: Library and Archive of Canada)
Post office located in a pharmacy Canada location unknown (source: Library and Archive of Canada)

Pontypool is a village not far from where I live. Sometime near 1872, Simon Jennings, son of the village founder, installed a post office in his general store and became the town’s first Postmaster. It was a very common arrangement for the post office to be housed in an existing local business.

Persons in addressing letters to their friends should be very particular to ascertain the name of the post office nearest to where they live and address them by the name of the office thus – ‘Mr. James Dobbs, New Market, Upper Canada’ or any other post office as the case may be as in consequence of letters not being properly addressed they are frequently lost to the writer and the one to whom they are addressed.”

The Cadmus General Store, was operated by J.E. Elliott when this cira 1910 picture was taken. Courtesy Scugog Shores Historical Musuem (Tweedsmuir History)
The Cadmus General Store, was operated by J.E. Elliott when this cira 1910 picture was taken.
Courtesy Scugog Shores Historical Musuem
(Tweedsmuir History)

Contractors were paid to deliver the mail to the front gate of rural addresses 5-6 days a week.  The lowest tender was accepted. If their performance was good, their contract was renewed at the end of four years. The contractors sorted the mal in their own office and supplied their own transport. without benefit from the government.

Rural mail delivery in Canada (source: Library and Archive of Canada)
Rural mail delivery in Canada (source: Library and Archive of Canada)

Mr. J. Walter of Courtice, Ontario, was one such beloved rural mail carrier. Children dashed to meet him at the mailbox hoping to receive one of the peppermint candies he carried in his pocket for such occasions. Mr. Walker employed the use of two horses in his mail delivery. He’d ride one to neighbouring Bowmanville to pick up the mail bag and complete part of the deliveries. The second horse was used to complete the remainder of deliveries and return to Courtice.

Great North Western Telegraph Company manual. (Click the image to read the GNWT manual. You can even turn the pages.)

Carl Kent served as postmaster from 1921 to 1950 in the Ontario town, Bowmanville.  During this time he also acted as a ticket agent for the Canada Pacific Railroad. He could often be seen making deliveries astride his penny farthing. Until the late 1940’s, Mr. Kent also operated a telegraph office for the Great North Western Telegraph Company. Post office salaries were very low and postmasters often elected to supplement their income by incorporating telegraph service into their business. Telegraph operators were also required to maintain the lines, a job that became challenging in the winter months when the weight of the snow brought them crashing down.

The inspiration to research postal history comes from my fiction writing. One of my characters works doggedly for the post office in a small town in northern Ontario, Canada. He is a man who enjoys the acquisition of knowledge and he is keenly interested in postal history. Through my reading, I discovered an obsessive hobby for my character to indulge in — collecting stamp boxes, like the silver one from 1890 shown below.

silver stamp case 1892

Question, comment or a bit of history to share?

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