Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Was a “River Agent?”

Steamboats are as rare as hens’ teeth today; so too are postal history items related to steamboats as carriers of the mail. When most of us think of steamboats, we think of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the movie Showboat, or at least hum a few bars of Ol’ Man River. But at one time, steamboats, or packet boats, were a critically important link in delivering mail around the Union

On the Delcampe website, I recently found this cover. [Figure1] The seller (in Bangkok, Thailand!) was advertising a cover addressed to Powell Brothers in Springboro, Pennsylvania. Docketing showed the cover was mailed by one N. Beeker of Ripley, Ohio. More on them later, but it was the postmark that caught my eye. Only half legible, it showed enough to read that it was cancelled on a steamboat by a “Riv. Agt.” or River Agent. A more legible CDS backstamp CDS reads “Cincinnati, O. April 5, 1884 - Transit.”.

What need for correspondence did this cover represent? What could it tell us about steamboating? Why was it in Bangkok (OK, that one is really none of my business)? To answer some of the questions this cover raises, let us look at some of the clues.

A “river agent” was the aquatic version of a route agent. In Fred MacDonald’s book Postal Markings of U.S. Waterway Routes, 1839-1997, he quotes:

“These route agents were employees of the Post Office Dept . . . sorted mail, accepted mail bags containing letters….and postmarked letters outside the mail bags. . . .
Down to about 1875, the postmarks used by these route agents were of almost any style and in almost any wording which pleased the route agent. . . . the presence of such words, abbreviations and expressions such as S.B., Steamer,… Riv. Agt…..”

The river agent had a miniature post office on board the steamboat. “It contained a sorting desk with a bank of pigeon holes….a small supply of stamps…ink pads, canceling devices, and a supply of lock pouches.” The agent even had a mail slot for customers who wrote letters during their voyage. The agent never charged any fees beyond standard letter mail rates for his work. At landings during the trip, a steamboat employee humped the mail bags down to the dock or “way landing.””

Identifying the job of a “river agent” can thus be reconstructed. Before the Civil War, steamboat captains acted in a semi-official capacity to care for the onboard mail. In 1880, there were still 6,797 passengers a year on Ohio Riverboats, and 348 new boats constructed. When our cover was mailed, riverboat traffic was shrinking due to competition from railroads, but far from dead.

The steamboat line on the postmark begins with “M,” leading a previous owner to believe that the original cancel probably referred to Maysville. Maysville, Kentucky, in Mason County, was from early on a steamboat port. Caleb Atwater, in 1829, wrote: “A steamboat runs daily between Maysville and Cincinnati.” There does not appear to have ever been a steamboat line devoted solely to the Maysville-Cincinnati route, but, as with railroad RPO cancels, a Maysville/Cincinnati cancel may not refer to a steamboat line so much as a Post Office designation of a postal route. Maysville and Ripley are only 18 miles apart on the Ohio River. The backstamp “Transit” leads me to think it was applied after the steamboat leg of the trip. I could easily see the letter mailed in Ripley, put on the steamboat and carried to Cincinnati, where it joined the everyday mailstream and eventually winding up in Pennsylvania.

No “N. Beeker” of Ripley appears in the Census. The “Powell Brothers” who received the cover was a large livestock handler near Erie, Pennsylvania. The Powell Brothers owned 3000 acres, starting as a nursery operation, and changing to livestock after the Civil War. “Their fine stock comprises Clydesdale horses …To all those who want to buy fine stock you can obtain it of the Powell Brothers, the celebrated stockmen, who will at all times extend to you fair dealing and courteous entertainment, which is a characteristic of these gentlemen, and on the of attributes to their wonderful success in the stock business. [1891]” “This business was so extensive, it included its own Post Office, Western Union Telegraph, railway station and both Adams and Wells-Fargo companies.”

Although the enclosure is long gone, Mr. Beeker was probably inquiring about horses or cattle. Little did he know that his envelope would have traveled by steamboat, evoking romantic memories of packet boats on the Ohio River.

[Besides the sources mentioned in the article, I also used Timothy H. Lewis, Transportation of Mail by Steamboat in the Nineteenth Century (Master’s thesis, University of Toledo, 1992), “Spring Township”[; accessed November 20, 2010]; M.P. Sargent, Pioneer Sketches: Scenes and Incidents of Former Days (Erie, Pa: Herald Printing & Publishing Co., 1891).]

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