On this bike ride I went to meet a dog named Owney. Also known by the nickname “Globe-trotter,” Owney was a scruffy terrier-mix mutt, who was nation’s most famous canine during his lifetime.
Owney first wandered into a Post Office in Albany, New York in 1888, and eventually went on to become a world-travelling mascot for The U.S. Postal Service. It is thought that Owney’s original owner was might have been a postal clerk who let the dog walk with him to work. Then at some point, his owner moved away and Owney stayed on at the post office where he had made a number of new friends, becoming a regular fixture there. Others speculate that Owney was homeless before wandering into the post office. Whatever the case may be, once he wandered in to the Albany Post Office, Owney found himself a new home and a new family.
Owney was attracted to something about the mailbags. Perhaps it was the texture, or maybe the scent. No one really knows for sure. Anyway, he liked them so much that he would come in and make himself at home among them. In cold weather, postal workers would even bundle him in mailbags to help keep him warm. Owney became somewhat of a guardian of the bags and the mail in them, and would not allow anyone other than mail clerks to touch or handle the bags. In fact, Owney liked the mailbags so much that he soon began to follow them when they left Albany.
At first Owney accompanied the mail bags onto mail wagons. Eventually, he also began to follow the bags that were loaded onto the Railway Post Office trains. Owney rode the trains across the state, and eventually around the country. Then, in 1895, Owney made an around-the-world trip, traveling with mailbags on trains and steamships from the Tacoma, Washington, sailing for China and Japan and through the Suez Canal before sailing back to New York City. He then returned to Albany. Over the next decade Owney traveled by train over 140,000 miles, following postal workers and mailbags almost everywhere they traveled.
At a time when train wrecks were all too common, no train on which Owney rode was ever involved in a wreck. So railway mail clerks considered him a good luck charm, and adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot for the next nine years. Clerks along his routes would mark Owney’s travels by placing metal baggage tags with each city’s name on his collar. Each time Owney returned home to Albany, the clerks there would see the tags and find out where Owney had been.
After a while Postmaster General John Wanamaker, who was one of Owney’s many fans, learned that his collar was weighed down by an ever-growing number of tags. So he gave Owney a vest on which to wear and display the “trophies.” Postmaster Wanamaker also declared that Owney was the Official Mascot of the Rail Mail Service.
By the spring of 1897 Owney was in poor health. He had been “retired” from traveling and was living with a postal worker in St. Louis, Missouri. But the trains and the dog could not be separated for long, and by the summer he was again riding the rails.
On June 11, 1897, a postal worker in Toledo, Ohio was showing off Owney and his collection of tags to a local newspaper reporter. Owney, who was an old dog by then and still in poor health, was agitated and barking. He then turned and bit the postal worker on the hand. The postal worker spread the word that Owney was mad, and the Toledo postmaster summoned the town marshall, who shot him, thus bringing a sad ending to both the life and the career of the famous little mutt.
Despite his one fatal gaff, Owney was still a beloved dog. Postal clerks raised funds to have Owney preserved, and he was given to the Post Office Department’s headquarters in here in D.C. Owney later made appearances in St. Louis at the 1904 World’s Fair, and the Post Office Department’s exhibit at the Sesquicentennial exhibit in Philadelphia, before returning to D.C. In 1911, the department transferred Owney to the Smithsonian Institution, where he was put on display in the National Museum of American History. In 1993 he moved to The National Postal Museum, where he has remained ever since.
After over 100 years, Owney continues to remain popular. In 2011, Owney was deemed worthy of depiction on a U.S. postage “forever” stamp. Owney has also been the main character in five hard cover books, a graphic novel entitled “The Secret Around-the-World Adventures of Owney the Postal Dog,” and an ebook entitled “Owney the Mail Pouch Pooch,” which features Owney’s theme song entitled “Owney — Tales From The Rails,” sung my country music artist Trace Adkins. Owney also has his own blog, as well as a Facebook and Twitter pages. Owney even has his own interactive iPhone app which can be downloaded for free at the iTunes store.
Owney can be seen on display in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, wearing his vest and surrounded by some of the over 1,000 tags that he accumulated on his travels. Many of Owney’s tags did not survive, but museum currently has 372 Owney tags in its collections. The National Postal Museum is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue (MAP), next to Union Station in northeast D.C.’s Swampoodle neighborhood. The Museum is open from 10:00am to 5:30pm daily except for Christmas. And you can’t beat the price of admission – it’s free.