Friday, February 5, 2010

Toledo, Portage, and the United States Express

Another article from Bend of the River. Original draft.

Toledo, Portage, and the United States Express

In the spring of 1863, a carpenter living south of Bowling Green in Portage, Ohio wrote a letter to a friend. E. P. Clough was a carpenter, and had just been mustered out of the 21st Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Writing to another soldier in the 21st, he began by mentioning his fiduciary condition:

I received yours of the 7th one week ago today in Camp Chase [Columbus, Oh.] and the next day we were Mustered for Pay and the same day we walked 8 Miles and then took the [railroad] Cars had no Dificulty atall [sic] in getting home but we had to Pay our own fare but we did Not Care for that we had 6 Months Pay in our Pockets there was hundreds of Men broke for home as soon as they got their [pay] in their pockets….

Clough continued his letter by saying that almost everyone arrived at home sick due to exposure.

Fast forward almost twenty years to downtown Toledo. A financial agent named John Fernvile was walking down St. Clair Street with $9.00 in cash and some legal papers related to Mr. Clough’s service in the Union Army. At 139 St. Clair, he stopped at the offices of the “United States Express Company.” The company sent a special envelope sealed with three wax seals to Clough, who still lived in Portage.

Clough presumably received the money safely, but in our day, when sending cash through the mail is risky at best, just what was the United States Express Company?
A diversified express service, United States Express also had branch offices at the old Union Depot and offices all over Ohio and the nation. Across the river in Perrysburg, one of the company’s “stamps” even survives, although this was more likely a receipt or postmark from the office of origin. In small towns and village train stations one could ship anything from a box of used clothes to a crate of new currency via the “States” express company.

“Express” companies might bring to mind UPS (United Parcel Service), Federal Express, Wells Fargo, or American Express. The last two named companies have a particularly long track record, having been founded before the Civil War. They delivered packages and other mail that was beyond the limits of the post office. Two negative facts about the pre-Civil War post office led to the express companies’ existence. One was that the federal mail service did not deliver “parcels” (packages, boxes, or envelopes over a certain weight) until 1913. The other negative was that there was no home delivery of mail until 1862 (in big cities) and 1896 (in small towns). These two desirable services led to the creation of private express companies that filled the gaps in federal service. And while the express companies have diversified into other financial services, delivering packages was the original raison d'ĂȘtre.

United States Express [I will abbreviate it as USE] was created in March of 1854 by Danforth N. Barney. Even from the beginning, the company was hopelessly entangled with other express companies. For example, the creation of USE was financed by a company which was theoretically a rival, American Express. USE eventually gained contracts from the infamous Erie Railroad, and “several [railroad] lines in the Midwest.”

Five companies, USE, American Express, Adams Express, Wells Fargo, and Southern Express, controlled 90% of the express business. The companies each had government and railroad contracts, and the five tried not to interfere with each others’ business. USE delivered mail, packages, currency, and other things. They shipped several whales from New York to Cincinnati, although there was a high mortality rate. In another shipment to Cincinnati, USE shipped fifteen wagons of zoo animals, including one hundred monkeys, twelve kangaroos, two each of lions, tigers, and hyenas, water buffaloes, and a twenty foot python. During the Civil War, the enormous increase in sending packages to soldiers from their homes made so much money for USE that they offered to ship to soldiers for half price.

The company was guided for many years by Thomas Platt. Platt was hired by USE in 1879. He won contracts from the government for the transportation of currency. He served as president of USE from 1897 to 1909, and at the same time was a United State Senator from New York. Platt was ruthless at capturing contracts but not good on day-to-day details. In 1901, Wells Fargo and Adams Express each bought 10% of USE. Men from each company obtained seats on the USE Board of Directors, and proceeded to “bleed” USE of railroad and treasury contracts.

In 1905, the federal government began to crack down on express companies and their shady, inbred dealings. When the attorney general of New York threatened to file an antitrust suit against Adams Express and American Express, those companies baled out of USE, selling their stock to E. H. Harriman, a railroad tycoon. The company dragged along for a few more years, largely ignoring the complaints of stockholders. When the Post Office finally offered parcel service in 1913, USE liquidated June 30, 1914 after suffering catastrophic loses. In a sign of just how big USE once was, American Express took over 2,400 USE offices.

We don’t know how E. P. Clough spent the money he received from the Toledo office of the United States Express. All we have left of the whole transaction is the envelope that brought his payment. But we can learn a bit more about how long distance payments were made in the heyday of the “States.”

[There is no history of the United States Express Company. Even this short essay had to be pieced together from mentions in other works. Two works were especially useful to me: Alvin Harlow, Old Waybills: The Romance of the Express Companies (New York, 1934), and Peter Z. Grossman, American Express: The Unofficial History… (New York, 1987). The information about E. P. Clough comes from the United States Census and from a letter preserved by the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University.]

1 comment:

  1. I have inherited the US Express Co and have lots of corporate papers. Is there interest in the historic papers from 1920s and 30s?