“Owney: The World’s Most Traveled Dog”
by Richard Bauman
The scruffy little dog scurried up the ship’s gangplank in the predawn darkness one morning in August 1895. He wasn’t a stowaway. In fact, he was traveling as a registered mail package headed for Japan. It wasn’t his first adventure traveling with the mail, it wouldn’t be his last, but it would be his longest. And when it was over, he would be famous.
Had there been television in the late 1800s, it’s likely the pooch known as Owney would have been the subject of some “reality TV” shows. Why? Because he was an adventuresome dog, and was ultimately declared “The World’s Most Traveled Dog.” And he journeyed mostly by or with the mail.
Owney was a stray that captured the hearts of postal workers and the public, and in due course became the mascot for the Railroad Postal Service.
He was generally a friendly animal, described as resembling a Scots terrier, only bigger. He first became acquainted with postal workers in 1888, when he walked into the Albany, New York, post office. No one knew where he came from, how old he was except he was no longer a puppy, but neither was he old. On that day he attached himself to the post office, postal workers, and mailbags.
Owney seemed to love mailbags. Whether it was texture, smell, or just the warmth they provided, he was happiest lounging on mail sacks. According to legend the first thing he did the day he walked into the Albany post office was curl up on a mailbag and go to sleep. When he awoke, he apparently decided the post office was his new home and mailbags became his life interest.
As he acclimated to the post office, the 30 or so postal workers recognized he wasn’t likely to leave, so they fed him and gave him a place to sleep.
How Owney started traveling with the mail in railroad cars isn’t by accident. He liked to ride atop the mail sacks on the horse-drawn carts as they went from post office to train station. As mailbags were being loaded into the railcar one day, he jumped aboard, unnoticed. He rode the train 150 miles south to New York City.
Postal workers in New York City wired the Albany post office to let them know Owney was there and ask what should they do about him. “Mail him back,” Albany replied. Once Owney was back in Albany, he was given a leather collar with a tag that directed he be returned to the Albany post office, and asked that he be given mail tokens at each stop he made.
The wanderlust bug seriously affected Owney. For the next nine years he traveled throughout the United States, and did it all “by mail.” But between outings he returned to to the Albany post office. Nonetheless, he went from being the “property” of the Albany post office to the “property” of postal workers everywhere.
The label on his collar, which asked for mail tags to mark Owney’s travels, was honored in stellar fashion. In all, he collected 1017 different tags from post offices in the United States and other countries, too. Those tags are an excellent accounting of his travels.
Most of the tags still survive and validate his visits to such cities as Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Nashville. Owney’s tokens were coin-like items rather than postal tags. One was good for a free cigar or one drink at a local watering hole in Reno, Nevada. In Nashville, a baker gave him a token good for a loaf of bread.
During a visit to Washington, DC, Postmaster General John Wanamaker presented Owney with a special jacket to carry his tags, but even that was inadequate to hold his collection. Periodically tags were removed and kept at the Albany post office.
In August 1895, Owney arrived in Tacoma, Washington. Of course he traveled “first class” – that is he traveled with the first class mailbags. He arrived in town by train, but left aboard a steamship. It was the beginning of an around-the-world extravaganza for Owney. It would make him world famous and earn him the title of “The World’s Most Traveled Dog.”
At four in the morning on August 19, 1895, Owney boarded the steamship Victoria along with 24 sacks of mail. Some local residents provided him a tiny suitcase, which contained a sleeping blanket (even though he preferred mailbags), a comb and a brush so he could always look his finest. He was sent registered mail as a “Registered Dog Package.” It assured he would receive special care on the Washington to Japan leg of his journey.
Owney was well received in Japan. The Japanese government issued him an official passport. It contained a number of instructions that really weren’t applicable to Owney. For example, he was cautioned about driving wagons too fast on narrow roads, not to attend fires on horseback, and to refrain from writing on the walls of public buildings. From Japan, he sailed to Shanghai and then to Foochow, in China.
In Foochow he was entertained aboard the United States Navy cruiser Detroit and was given a ribbon by the ship’s officers. As he moved westward he collected medals and tags along the way. From Singapore he sailed across the Indian Ocean, to Perim at the mouth of the Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal. He stopped briefly at the Mediterranean port of Algiers and at Sao Miguel in the Azores.
The steamer Port Phillip carried him across the Atlantic to the United States. He arrived in New York, his home state, on December 24, 1895. Then he was whisked to Tacoma aboard a Northern Pacific train. The train pulled into the Tacoma train station five days later. It was the end of a 132-day adventure, and Owney was apparently none the worse for the trip.
Owney’s adventurous life should have ended happily with years of leisurely retirement. It didn’t turn out that way. Owney was no youngster when he circled the globe in 1895, and afterward the Albany post office clerks were advised to keep him in the city. But how do you stop a born traveler from traveling?
He boarded a train to Toledo, Ohio, in late spring 1897. Something happened there on June 11, but exactly what no one knows – or told. Suddenly, and as strangely as his postal carrier began, it was ended. Most accounts of his demise suggest Owney bit a mail clerk. Whatever the circumstances, Owney was shot and killed.
A Toledo taxidermist took the remains and created a life-size likeness of Owney. He was donated to the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. And that’s where his likeness is today, in a glass case – complete with tags and medals – with a faraway look in his eyes, as if anticipating his next adventure.
Richard Bauman’s latest book is Bible Oddities.