Alaska Life

The postal service in Anchorage predates the city itself — and even gave the young town its name

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

In 1939, Anchorage was selected as the site for what would become Fort Richardson. The subsequent demographic and economic revelation transformed the sleepy town with less than 4,000 residents. By 1950, around 32,000 lived in the greater Anchorage area. Municipal leadership struggled to catch up with its new population in supply lines, schools, housing, roads, policing and myriad other infrastructure stresses caused by the boom. For years, many small-town hallmarks survived, thanks to inertia, budget woes and the sheer amount of time it takes to plan and initiate change. Then, in 1952, an innovation occurred, a new practice enjoyed by those fancy city residents in the smaller states. Anchorage finally got door-to-door mail delivery.

The Anchorage post office essentially predates Anchorage. On Aug. 19, 1914, before the 1915 tent city or original townsite lot auction, the Anchorage post office was established, officially, if not physically. Royden Chase was appointed its first postmaster. The postal service’s greatest mark on local history also dates to then. Their unyielding stance on the name “Anchorage” is why it remains despite early opposition from nearly all other corners.

In 1915, town planners quickly carved out a space for a post office. A photograph survives showing the first line of customers. The procession stretches out the building and over the rough, uneven, freshly cleared land. Some of the locals have their hands on their hips, a sign of impatience. Others are turned to talk to each other. Indeed, the arrival of mail was a social event. For more than 40 years, Anchorage residents had to travel downtown to pick up their mail. And while everyone hates lines — especially at the post office — the routine gatherings became the place to exchange news and gossip.

Those residents with busier schedules could rent post office boxes. Larger bins were also available for individuals, businesses or organizations that needed the space. There were padlocks for the bins, though few used them. One such trusting organization was the Catholic Holy Family Church.

Father Aloysius Markham (1867-1933) was the church’s second pastor, serving here from 1919 to 1929. One summer, he noticed the supply of communion wafers was running low and that his order for more from the Lower 48 had yet to arrive. Every day, he anxiously checked the church’s mail bin, but no wafers came.

A 1981 Anchorage Historic Landmark Preservation Commission publication — “Anchorage: The Way it Was” — quotes an unidentified old-timer on how the mystery finally unraveled. “Father Markham happened to be passing the vacant lot behind the old post office when his eyes fell on two youngsters in the middle of the clearing. At last, the failure of the wafers to show up was explained: at the time Father Markham saw them, the little boys had about finished munching away the last of the sacramental wafers purloined from the bin.”

The Anchorage mail system changed slowly over the next couple of decades. In the late 1930s, the original post office was abandoned in favor of the new Federal Building on Fourth Avenue. Residents still had to personally journey downtown to retrieve their mail, in all manner of weather.

[Related: Mud, fires and bootlegging: What daily life looked like in the early years of Anchorage]

On Aug. 6, 1951, Anchorage Postmaster Herbert Brown confirmed that home mail delivery was on its way. He informed residents that they had a month to notify their correspondents and subscription services (e.g., magazines) of their home addresses. More importantly, locals were also warned that house numbers needed to be visible from the street. Many if not most houses lacked numbers at the time. For that matter, many streets also lacked signs. Brown declared, “Streets without names clearly posted and houses without numbers will be ignored by the carriers.”

As part of their general expansion of services, the post office also installed 21 mailboxes on street corners that August. A year prior, a single mailbox was placed at the top of the steps, just outside the door to the post office. It was of limited value. Residents had to head downtown to drop off outgoing mail regardless. These corner boxes were something new, the first remote mail pick-up service in local history. Eighteen mailboxes were scattered around town south of Ship Creek, from Fourth Avenue and D Street to 13th Avenue and Medfra Street. Another was installed at the railroad station. And the last two were placed in Government Hill.

Finally, on Sept. 6, 1951, 10 postal carriers set out on their routes. The paths were carefully engineered over the course of a month. Dry runs were conducted several days in advance. Still, it wouldn’t be the Anchorage post office we all know if the day had gone off without a hitch. A late-arriving shipment delayed the start from nine in the morning until midday. George Byer (1912-2000) was one of the carriers. He served as Anchorage Mayor from 1959 to 1961 and on the City Council from 1963 to 1966.

Postmaster Brown acknowledged that home mail delivery was a turning point in Anchorage history. “It means the end of the gossip fests which used to blossom around the post office boxes where garrulous folks gathered for their letters,” Brown told the Daily Times. “Now the mail will come to them directly at their door. We are glad to be able to furnish this service to them. We know that they will be glad to receive it.”

The Anchorage Philatelic Society printed a special cachet, a designed envelope, to commemorate the occasion. Anchorage Daily Times cartoonist Jane Halfling drew the illustration, a mailman making his rounds on a dog sled. Seven-hundred cachets with a 1937 Denali three-cent stamp were sold for 10 cents, roughly a dollar in 2021 money.

Two weeks later, Brown noted, “Three or four mailmen have already been bitten and their clothes torn by vicious dogs since delivery began.” He added, “Home delivery of mail will not be made anywhere where dogs known to be vicious are not tied up.” Loose, sometimes feral dogs were an ever-present threat in mid-century Anchorage. Packs of sometimes more than 30 dogs roamed the streets, often preying on children. In 1955, one such pack killed a 22-month-old boy outside his Spenard home.

Home mail delivery continued to expand throughout the decade and into most of the adjoining neighborhoods, including Spenard in 1954 and Mountain View in 1959, the latter after years of broken promises. In areas without sidewalks, postal workers installed curbside boxes. Other Alaska cities initiated home delivery as well, including Fairbanks beginning in November 1952.

More changes to the postal service followed, little bits and bobs that incrementally made the post office experience what it is today. For many decades, the post office declined to declare an official Alaska abbreviation. Individuals were expected to spell out the entire name. People ignored this, and any number of letters marked for ASK and ALA ended up in Arkansas and Alabama, respectively.

In 1958, Bob Kederick of the Daily Times humorously opined, “No abbreviation is suitable for the six letters of Alaska. It can’t be reduced and no combination of fewer letters fits the dignity of Alaska. The only sensible answer is to abbreviate Alaska with seven or more letters, preferably ten or fifteen. Nothing less than six.” The first official Alaska postal abbreviation—ALSK—came in June 1963. Only four months later, it was replaced with the familiar AK.

ZIP codes were also introduced in 1963. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner claimed that ZIP codes were a passing fad. The newspaper argued, “We’ll wager it will be abandoned in a few months as someone’s highly expensive bright idea. It won’t work because people are tired of living in a numerical society. The long numbers are also contrary to human nature. Most folks are just too lazy to write out a ZIP code number let alone try to remember them. Businesses may use them, but as long as they are given a choice, John Q. Public won’t.” While it would be difficult to be more wrong about something, there are far worse things to be wrong about.

Key sources:

“Cachets to Celebrate First Mail Delivery.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 4, 1951, 4.

Carlson, Phyllis, Mike Kennedy, and Cliff Cernick. Anchorage the Way it Was. Anchorage: Municipality of Anchorage Historic Landmark Preservation Commission, 1981.

Carns, James L. and Teresa White Carns. Our First 100 Years: Holy Family Cathedral Anchorage, Alaska. Anchorage: Holy Family Cathedral, 2015.

“First Mail Boxes Set Up in Anchorage.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 9, 1951, 1, 8.

Hamill, Hugh. “Home Mail Delivery Starts Today.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 6, 1951, 1

“Home Mail Delivery to Start in Few Weeks—Postmaster.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 6, 1951, 1.

Kederick, Bob. “All Around Alaska.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 2, 1958, 4.

“On the Inside.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 26, 1963, 4.

“Vicious Dogs Stop Mailmen.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 19, 1951, 2.