Sometimes, it’s the little things that bring you the most joy, like finding out there is only one floating zip code in the U.S. and it is an adorable 45-foot mail boat.
(We’re taking today to celebrate Juneteenth, a day on which we celebrate the emancipation of Black people who were held as slaves in the United States. We will be celebrating, but we will also be taking time to reflect on the history and legacy of slavery, as well as the ongoing structural, institutional and systemic anti-Black racism that continues to be a defining characteristic of the United States today.)
Not only does it deliver mail to the brave men and women who ply the treacherous waters of the Great Lakes, but they have to do it on the fly, delivering packages, food and sometimes people while both the mail boat and mighty tanker ships are in motion. Here’s a taste of what they do from a 2016 New York Times article:
One warm morning in late May, the mail boat chugged out to meet the Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin, a 739-foot freighter steaming up the Detroit River. The big ship slowed but did not stop, and Capt. Bill Redding pushed the tire-clad bow of the 45-foot J.W. Westcott II snug against the sheer steel side of the Martin, keeping pace with it.
Canada Steamship Lines was painted in white across the red hull, and from above the “S” in “Steamship” a man in a hard hat and red jumpsuit lowered a dirty white bucket on a black rope. Two bags, filled with six cans of Planters mixed nuts and seven boxes of K-Cup coffee, were quickly tied on by the Westcott’s deck hand and hoisted aboard the freighter.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the captain of the Martin had called to order the nuts and coffee, knowing that they would be delivered to his ship when it passed the Westcott office, just southwest of the Ambassador Bridge on the Michigan side of the Detroit River.
The J.W. Westcott II is the most recent in a long line of boats the J.W. Westcott Co. have operated on the Detroit River stretching back to 1874. The company, and boat, is named for company founder John Ward Westcott, who grew up in a prominent shipping family in Detroit and became one of the youngest captains on the Great Lakes (at the time). He quickly realized there was money to be made in improving the lousy communication between ships heading in and out of the Great Lakes and stakeholders on the shore, according to the J.W. Westcott Co. website:
With a lack of reliable forms of communication between shipping companies and their vessels ever-changing weather conditions, congestion in ports, breakdowns in equipment and other unforeseen complications anywhere along the Great Lakes could spell financial disaster for a company. Westcott sought to remedy this communication problem by establishing our company in the Port of Detroit circa 1874.
The marine reporting agency John founded would field destination and dock information from shipping companies and deliver them to passing vessels from his dock on Belle Isle. The modern marvel of engineering - a line tied to a bucket - would be thrown over the side of the passing vessel. Westcott would place communique inside and the bucket would quickly hoist back up. This string of events would come to be known and ‘mail in the pail’.
The tiny tug has been delivering official USPS mail to sailors since 1948, when the J.W. Westcott Co. earned the world’s first non-military floating zip code and still the only one in the U.S. — 48222. To get a piece of mail to a merchant marine, you’d address it to “Vessel Name, Marine Post Office, Detroit, Michigan, 48222.” The high-tech ‘mail in a pail’ operation from 1874 is still ongoing to this day, as you can see from this video uploaded last week:
It hasn’t all been fun and mail for the J.W. Westcott II. On October 23, 2007 the Westcott II was delivering mail and a Canadian pilot to a 533-foot Norwegian oil tanker, Professional Mariner reported. In the wake of the massive ship, the Westcott II began to take on more water than was normal. The Westcott II listed on its port side and was gone in 20 seconds according to witnesses. Two J.W. Westcott employees were killed, with two replacement pilots jumping overboard into the chilly, fast-moving waters in an attempt to swim for shore, though they were picked up quickly by a tug from Windsor. Six days later, the Westcott II was raised from the bottom of the Detroit River with the body of Captain Catherine Nasiatka still inside. The body of the second fatality, deckhand David Lewis, was never found.
The Westcott II that is currently running on the Detroit River is the same ship pulled from the deep cold water in 2007. It was refurbished and put back into service delivering everything from fresh foods, new personal and yes, the mail, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.