Owney - The Good Luck Postal Dog

Owney with some of his medals and tags
Owney was a scruffy mutt who became a regular fixture at the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. His owner, a man named Owen who had adopted him as a stray, was a postal clerk who let the dog walk with him to work. One rainy day, the back door to the post office was accidentally left open. The dog found his way inside and the workers didn't have the heart to put him back out in the rain and in the following weeks, continued to let him come in and spend his days there. When the supervisor inquired about the dog the workers were keeping in the back room even though it was against the rules, they told him it was Owen's mutt. Falling for the pup's cuteness, wagging tail, and likable nature, he let them keep him. After that, the dog became known as Owney. 

Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and slept on them every night. When his owner moved away, Owney stayed with his mail clerk friends and his mailbag bed. He soon began to follow mailbags around on their daily travels. At first, he just followed them onto mail wagons, returning every afternoon to his home at the post office. Then he began to follow mailbags onto Railway Post Office (RPO) mail trains and traveled with them on their journey across the state and then all around the country.

Before long, railway mail clerks considered the dog a good luck charm. At the time, train wrecks were all too common and resulted in a number of deaths of postal employees. However, no train Owney rode was ever in a wreck.

Somehow, he knew the mailbags were for postal employees only and wouldn't let anyone but a uniformed postal worker touch a bag. One time a mail pouch fell unnoticed from a wagon during a delivery run. When the carrier returned to the office, not only was the bag found to be missing, but so was Owney! Upon retracing the route, the bag was found with Owney laying on top of it, guarding it by barking and growling at anyone who approached. When he saw the postal carrier, he jumped off the bag and began wagging his tail. 

In a book at the time it was reported "The terrier Owney travels from one end of the country to the other in the postal cars, tagged through, petted, talked to, looked out for, as a brother, almost. But then, no matter what the attention, he suddenly departs for the south, the east, or the west, and is not seen again for months." In 1893 he was feared dead after having disappeared for longer than usual, but it turned out he was slightly injured in an accident in Canada. Word went out that Owney was missing and when the Canadians heard this, they put him on a mail train back to Albany with a note telling what happened and that they had paid a local vet to nurse him until he had recovered enough to once again travel. They did, however, request a payment of $2.50 to pay for his food. The money was quickly collected in Albany and sent to the Canadians. 

Owney with Mail Train workers
Fearing he would get lost someday, this incident led the Albany workers to buy him a collar with a metal tag which read, "Owney. Post Office. Albany, New York." Railway mail clerks around the country adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot and began marking his travels by placing medals and tags on his collar. Eventually there were so many tags attached to the collar that the small dog was unable to carry them all around his neck so each time Owney returned home to Albany, the clerks there removed and saved some of the tags. 

Postmaster General John Wanamaker was one of Owney's biggest fans. When he learned that the dog's collar was weighed down by the ever-growing number of tags, he gave Owney a harness on which to display the "trophies."  On April 9, 1894, a writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that "Nearly every place he stopped, Owney received an additional tag until now he wears a big bunch. When he jogs along, they jingle like the bells on a junk wagon." Eventually, there were so many tags that it was too heavy even with the harness so during his travels, clerks would remove some and send them to Albany for safe keeping. It is unknown exactly how many medals Owney accumulated during his time riding the rails, but an unofficial total of 1,017 has been given. Many have been lost. Others,for one reason or another, were not saved. The National Postal Museum has 372 in its collection today.

 In 1895, Owney made a 4-month around-the-world trip, traveling with mailbags on trains and steamships to North Africa, Asia and across Europe before returning to Albany on December 23rd. In Japan, the Emperor gave the dog 2 medals bearing the Japanese coat of arms. It was estimated that before his death, Owney had traveled over 143,000 miles.

In June, 1897, Owney boarded a mail train for Toledo, Ohio. While he was there, a new clerk chained him to a post and he was shown to a newspaper reporter. Exactly what happened is not known; some say the reporter tried to pick him up by the scruff of his neck and others say it was simply because he wasn't used to being chained up, but for some reason the normally calm and docile Owney became ill tempered, bit the reporter and then a police officer who came to investigate and was shot in response, Owney died in Toledo of a bullet wound on June 11, 1897. Mail clerks raised funds to have Owney preserved and he was given to the Post Office Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C.  In 1911, the department transferred Owney to the Smithsonian Institution, where he has remained ever since. Owney can be seen on display in the National Postal Museum's atrium, wearing his harness and surrounded by several of his tags.
Owney at the Smithsonian today

Owney’s unusual life and wide-spread travels have inspired five children’s books and a song sung by Trace Adkins. In 2011, the Post Office issue a stamp honoring his memory. Elementary schools across the United States continue to use the story of Owney as a way to connect their students with those in other states by sending stuffed toy dogs from school to school through the mail accompanied by messages from students to one another.

Owney stamp