The “Dog Days of Summer” are here – the perfect time to take a look at one of the cuter faces of railroading. Chessie the cat may be the best-known railroad animal, but the Railway Postal Service had a mascot that was even more well-traveled.
Nobody is quite sure how it started. but in 1888 a scruffy little mutt found his way into the Albany, New York post office and became a regular fixture. He took from following the postmen to following the bags themselves. This took him into wagons and of course, onto the trains.
Soon Owney was traveling from city to city with the clerks as they sorted mail in the Railway Post Office. He was considered a good luck charm – no train he rode every had an accident. And whenever he arrived in a new city, the postmaster added another tag to his collar. Word of Owney and his travels moved quickly – the RPO was after all the center of the nation’s communications network of the day. Owney even embarked on a world tour in 1895 via train and steamship across the United States and Asia.
The Postmaster General, John Wanamaker, took a liking to the dog and had a special vest made for his growing collection of tags. He would be featured in newspaper articles around the country. He was perhaps the most famous dog of his era, capturing the growing spirit of adventure and travel in the way only a lovable mutt can. Some of his trips were planned, but often Owney came and went as he pleased. With each stop, the tags on his vest only added to his legend.
Sadly, Owney died in Toledo in 1897. Official cause of death was a gunshot wound. Owney had always had an independent spirit and in his older age was growing less fond of handling, even by the postal workers. After biting a clerk and lunging at the chief of police, Owney was put down.
Postal workers from around the country took up a collection to have his body preserved. Today Owney and his medals belong to the Smithsonian and can be seen in the atrium of the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C.
In 2011 Owney was featured on his own postage stamp. He has also been the subject of several children’s books, school activities, a commemorative spoon – he even has his own Facebook page! Thankfully, although no official record of his travels remains, much can be learned from the tags and constant media coverage to document the majority of Owney’s experience. You can learn more about Owney through the National Postal Museum.
While we all like the mechanical side of railroading, it’s important to remember it has a human, err canine, side as well.