The Detroit River has long been an important passageway for ships on the Great Lakes. Every year, freighters pass though the river on their way to and from places as far west and north as Duluth, Minnesota and as far east as the Atlantic Ocean. The passage through the Detroit River has one perk not found anywhere else on the lakes, or even anywhere else in the country. For the Detroit River is home to a ship named the J.W. Westcott II, the only floating post office in the United States.
The J.W. Westcott Company was founded in 1874 by Captain J.W. Westcott. Westcott was born in 1848 to a prominent shipping family in the Midwest His parents, David H. Westcott and Mary Ward, were the first couple married aboard a steamer on the lakes. Naturally, Westcott grew up around boats, working in his father’s boat yard as a child and becoming a captain at age 20. He decided to start his business, which originally did not include postal mail, because he saw a need for shipping companies to be able to contact their captains in the pre-radio era. Shipping companies were often very secretive about their routes, so much so that even ship’s captains often did not know where the final destination of their ship would be. Westcott’s business provided a way for the companies to give instructions to captains that were already well on their way.
In the early days, Westcott delivered messages to the ships via rowboat. The passing ship would lower a bucket on a rope to the rowboat, Westcott would put the message in the bucket, and the ship would hoist it back up. Although the modern J.W. Westcott Company no longer uses rowboats, the “mail by the pail” method is actually still in use today!
Westcott’s idea was clearly a popular one, because his service continued to expand and grow. In 1910 the company purchased its first power ship, named the J.W. Westcott, and opened a branch office in Port Huron serving the St. Clair river. It also had competition from other companies, such as as the Independent Marine Reporting Company, founded in 1902.
In 1948 the company became an official U.S. Post Office and eventually was given its own zip code: 48222. In 1949 it commissioned the building of a new ship, the 45 foot J.W. Westcott II still in use today. That particular ship was involved in a tragic accident in 2001, when the ship sank near the Ambassador Bridge while in the wake of a larger ship. The captain and one crew member were killed and two other crew members were rescued. The ship was salvaged and put back together.
Even in this era of electronic communication, J.W. Westcott II is still valuable to the people who work on the freighters, who are often on board for months at a time. The boat delivers much more than just the mail – it also provides supplies including snacks and cigarettes, nautical charts, a bookstore with marine books and manuals, postcards, and water taxi services for those going to and from shore. It’s still a family business, too. The current president is James M. Hogen, the great grandson of J.W. Westcott.
In 2005, the company was given a Michigan Heritage Award for 100 years of unique service to the Great Lakes community. Unique is certainly the right word! I think it is great that the J.W. Westcott is still out there delivering supplies to passing ships, just as it did 100 years ago. Next time you are down by the Detroit River (perhaps on the wonderfully redone riverwalk), be sure to keep and eye out for a small ship darting between the freighters – the local mailman at work!
“The Story of J.W. Westcott,” J.W. Westcott Co.
Kozma, LuAnne “The J.W. Westcott Company and Crew,” Michigan Heritage Awards
Bernhardt, Patrick, “The J.W. Westcott Company, the Nation’s Only Floating Zip Code,” examiner.com
Cockburn, Andrew, “ZipUSA: 48222” National Geographic Magazine