There wasn’t a whole lot of mail for folks aboard the Thunder Bay as it cruised past Detroit’s skyline one Tuesday in early June. There were just a few envelopes, a couple of magazines, some packages from Amazon, and a collection of boxes of mechanical maintenance equipment that arrived via UPS. Even so, about a dozen crew members were at the starboard edge of the 740-foot freighter to greet the scrappy 45-foot J.W. Westcott II down below as it sidled along the Detroit River to tie deliveries to an extended rope. It only takes one or two sailors to pull up items during encounters that usually last less than 10 minutes, but the transactions nonetheless often draw crowds from a crew that can otherwise spend unbroken months mostly alone on the Great Lakes.
The Thunder Bay’s sailors peered down the three stories of ruby-painted wall between them and the Westcott, some spotting familiar faces on board the smaller boat, and offered a few warm regards shouted over the ship’s engine and the wind. “It can be the most interesting moment of their weeks,” says senior dispatcher Bill Redding, 63, as the Westcott slinks back to its nearby berth.
And so it’s been for more than a century for the Westcott, the only ship contracted to deliver U.S. Postal Service mail to the commercial vessels that move everything from stone to wheat to oil across the world’s largest network of fresh water lakes. Since ZIP codes were invented in 1963, just one — 48222 — has been dedicated specifically to route mail for delivery on boats moving across the lakes and tributaries. That is, to the J.W. Westcott Co.’s squat white building located on the west bank of the Detroit River a half-mile south of the majestic Ambassador Bridge linking the United States and Canada.
As a teenager, 63-year-old owner Jim Hogan admits, he didn’t fully understand the significance of the business started by his great-grandfather, J.W. Westcott, in 1874. After high school, his father, who had married Westcott’s granddaughter, brought him on as a deck hand part-time and in summers until Hogan realized what was expected of him. “I didn’t see the specialness in the operation as a young guy and I didn’t realize the tradition that had been built by my ancestors,” says Hogan, who took over in the early 1980s and whose son, James Hogan, is now the company’s vice president. “Now it fills me with pride.”
It has fallen to Hogan, in fact, to reinvent the business as the advent of email and cellular phones bypassed traditional forms of mail. As recently as the 1990s, the “mail boat,” as it is commonly dubbed, ferried some 1.5 million pieces of correspondence to several hundreds of ships. That volume has diminished to the point that, Hogan says, the company doesn’t even keep count anymore: “We note the number of Express Mail and Priority Expresses we carry, and that portion has quadrupled here. People use 48222 for business letters and things coming and going more than letters from home.”
To supplement and shift its business model, Westcott also takes requests for grocery items that they pick up at a local supermarket and receives and delivers packages that arrive from FedEx, UPS, and other delivery services. A storage room at the Westcott building keeps bulk containers of Maxwell House coffee and sleeves of sodas stored there by American Steamship, which operates more than a dozen freighters on the Great Lakes. Crew members pay a $10 surcharge for each package they receive from a non-USPS entity, which seems steep, but rarely manages to elicit protests. “There are some guys who complain, but I say, listen: The U.S. Postal Service is paying me do things, but they’re not paying me to have a guy here to sit and sign for an item from UPS, and UPS can show up here 24 hours a day,” says Sam Buchanan, a 52-year-old Joe Pesci-esque tough-talker born five blocks from the Westcott berth. “I know when the Postal Service is coming and I know what I gotta do. To have somebody here for when FedEx shows up at 7 o’clock or 5 o’clock or whenever, take responsibility for it, put it in my computer, then track it and actually put it on boat and bring it to them for $10 is a helluva deal.”
Westcott is, in fact, a 24/7 operation for at least 252 days a year, from mid-April when the lakes thaw to late December when ships typically dock for winter. Eighteen employees staff the operation, which always includes someone at the radio to communicate with ships as they approach along with a captain and pilot to make the short journey to cruise at about 50 miles per hour along the freighters to make the deliveries. Connections are made with boats regardless of what hour they pass because there’s no telling when the ship will be nearby again.
As freighters have grown larger and taller, Westcott boaters’ direct contact with those who get the mail has decreased. Hogan recalls feeling a more intimate connection decades ago when he’d associate the names on pieces of mail with specific freighters. In 1975, when 29 people died in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, it hit Hogan personally. “That ship went down on a Monday night, I came into work on a Tuesday afternoon and all their mail was still waiting for them, their packages, their laundry,” he says. “You would lose more than just that ship. We don’t get that so much anymore.”
Westcott is marginally profitable, Hogan says, but even so, his sons have requested that he never sell the business. “We keep this going for the tradition of it, and we bite the bullet a lot of years,” he says. “There’s also a reason you don’t see competition in this thing. If there was a lot of money in it, others would do it. This is like a firehouse. We sit around, we chat with you. The radio goes off or the phone rings and all of a sudden we’re moving. Once we put out the fire, we’re back here sitting and chatting and here we are at the Westcott Yacht Club.”