By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — If you have driven down Railroad Avenue in Colfax, you have probably noticed the bright yellow mail car with green doors.
Herb Sakalaucks, curator of the Colfax Railroad Museum, told the Colfax Village Board at the July 14 meeting that he has had contact with the Smithsonian Institution about the mail car.
“It is, as far as we can tell, the oldest mail car in existence in the country. I tied it back in with a postage stamp the post office issued a few years ago called Owney, the postal dog. The dog was a mascot of the postal service and rode mail cars throughout the country. This car is probably the only one still in existence that he rode in,” Sakalaucks said.
Owney rode mail cars all over the country, and in fact, around the world, and started his career as a post office mascot in Albany, New York, in 1888.
Various references say that Owney, a terrier-type dog, was adopted by a postal clerk when he wandered into a post office one cold and rainy night and fell asleep on a bag of mail.
The official history of Owney, however, which was written by a Smithsonian National Postal Museum historian, says it is likely the dog belonged to a postal clerk named Owen, who allowed the dog to follow him to work.
No matter what his origins, the dog enjoyed riding on mail cars and went from city to city and state to state.
After a while, the various post offices began to make tags for him. The postal agents were worried Owney would get lost and wanted to make sure that he returned where he belonged.
Eventually Owney had so many tags, it was hard for the dog to carry them on his collar.
The Postmaster General ordered a jacket made for Owney so that the tags could be spread out across his body, making it easier for him to carry them.
From time to time, clerks and postmasters would remove several of the tags and would send them to Albany, New York, or the national headquarters in Washington D.C.
Although there is no written record of the actual tags the dog received, Owney reportedly had over 1,000 tags all together. Only about 370 of them remain.
In August of 1895, Owney began his “around the world trip,” starting from Tacoma, Washington. The dog traveled for four months through Asia and across Europe and returned to New York City in December.
Owney died on June 11, 1897. By that time, the dog was old, and had, according to news reports at that time, become aggressive in his old age. The dog allegedly attacked a postal clerk and a U.S. Marshal in Toledo, Ohio, and was shot and killed.
Newspapers all over the country carried Owney’s obituary.
Postal clerks across the country did not want the dog to be buried and asked that he be preserved and presented to the post office department’s headquarters.
Owney’s remains were sent for taxidermy, and in 1904, Owney was displayed by the United States Postal Service at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
In 1911, Owney was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1964, he was placed on the third floor of what is called today the National Museum of American History.
In 1993, Owney was moved to the National Postal Museum.
In June of 2011, the United States Postal Service issued a Forever stamp honoring Owney.
The Colfax Railroad Museum’s 1884 mail car was in service for about 50 years and then was turned into a private home in Altoona.
Sakalaucks acquired the mail car after seeing an advertisement to give it away.
The Colfax Railroad Museum is located in the sandstone Wisconsin Central Railroad Depot on Railroad Avenue built in 1914, which is the third depot for Colfax.
The second depot is now a private residence at 416 Main Street.
The west end of the depot that houses the railroad museum was destroyed during the June 4, 1958, tornado.
The museum has 1,600 pieces of dining car china on display, making it the largest public display of dining car china in the United States.
Sakalaucks retired recently and has returned to Colfax. He spoke to the village board to outline plans for future development of the museum.