Through Rain, Sleet, Snow or High Tide
There wasn’t a whole lot of mail for folks aboard the John J. Saginaw as it cruised past Detroit’s skyline one Friday in mid-November. Just a few envelopes that appeared to be bills, a couple of magazines, some packages from Amazon. Even so, about a dozen crewmembers were at the starboard edge of the 630-foot cargo ship to greet the scrappy 45-foot J.W. Westcott II—or “mailboat,” as it’s commonly known—as it sidled along three stories below. It only takes one or two sailors to pull up the items with a rope, but the transactions nonetheless often draw crowds for a crew that can otherwise spend unbroken months alone on the Great Lakes.
“It can be the most interesting moment of their weeks,” senior dispatcher Bill Redding, 60, said as the mailboat zipped back to its nearby berth—a squat white building on the west bank of the Detroit River a half-mile south of the majestic Ambassador Bridge, which links the United States and Canada.
For more than a century, the Westcott has been the only ship contracted to deliver U.S. Postal Service mail to the commercial freighters 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. In fact, it’s the only floating zip code in America.
As a teenager, owner Jim Hogan—now 60—admits he didn’t understand the significance of the business started by his great-grandfather, J.W. Westcott, in 1874. After high school, Hogan’s father, who married Westcott’s granddaughter, brought him on as a deckhand part-time and during 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,” said Hogan, who took over in the early 1980s and now has a son who serves as the company’s vice president. “Now it fills me with pride.”
It has fallen to Hogan, in fact, to reinvent the business as email and cellular technology undermine traditional mail. As recently as the 1990s, the mailboat annually ferried some 1.5 million pieces of correspondence to hundreds of ships. That volume has diminished to the point that the company doesn’t even bother counting anymore. To supplement and shift its business model, Westcott charges crew members on Great Lakes ships an $8 surcharge for each package they receive from FedEx, UPS, and any other non-USPS entity. Westcott also takes requests for grocery items that they’ll pick up at a local supermarket.
An $8 surcharge may seem steep, but it rarely elicits protests. “There are some guys who complain,” said Westcott captain Sam Buchanan, a Joe Pesci–like tough talker who was born five blocks from Westcott HQ. “But I say, listen: The U.S. Postal Service is paying me to do things, but they’re not paying me to have a guy here to sit and sign for an item from UPS. To have somebody here for when FedEx shows up at seven o’clock or five o’clock or whenever, take responsibility for it, put it in my computer, then track it and actually put it on a boat and bring it to you for $8 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 full-time employees staff the operation, which always includes having someone at the radio to communicate with ships as they approach and a captain and pilot to make the short journeys out to the freighters. Connections are made with boats regardless of what hour they pass because there’s no telling when the ships will be nearby again.
“It’s a lonely life out there on the freighters,” said Sal Randazzo, 29, Westcott’s newest hire who navigated the mailboat to the Saginaw on the day I tagged along. “Just to get a box from Amazon or a letter from family, it means a lot to them. It makes our work very noble and rewarding.”
As the freighters have gotten larger and taller, Westcott boaters have less and less direct contact with those who get the mail, much to their regret. 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 on Lake Superior, it hit Hogan personally. “That ship went down on a Monday night. I came into work on Tuesday afternoon, and all their mail was still waiting for them, their packages, their laundry,” he said somberly.
Westcott is only marginally profitable, but Hogan’s sons have urged him never to sell it. “We bite the bullet a lot of years, so we really just keep this going for the tradition of it,” Hogan said. “It’s like a firehouse: We sit around, we chat. 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 at the Westcott Yacht Club.”