By Jackie Loohauis-Bennett
From: Journal Sentinel
If ever a dog was a real-life Rover, it was Owney.
In the 1890s, this magical mutt turned into a national legend by traveling across the United States by rail and then globe-trotting to Mexico, Canada, Europe and Asia. Owney became the U.S. Postal Service’s mascot and magical good luck charm.
Now his adorably scruffy image will grace a new U.S. postage stamp. The dog’s Milwaukee connection will be marked by both stamp and animal enthusiasts in a public ceremony here.
To celebrate Owney the Postal Dog’s stamp, Milwaukee’s American Topical Association Chapter 5 stamp club will hold a free public ceremony at the Wisconsin Humane Society, 4500 W. Wisconsin Ave., at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The event will include an honor guard, a special first day stamp cancellation with Owney’s picture, and cacheted envelopes for collectors.
“We’ll have people explaining the Owney story and we’ll play a video from the National Postal Museum explaining the railway postal system when the trains had post offices on them to sort the mail. People can also make their own Owney souvenirs,” says Rob Henak, the stamp club’s spokesman.
It’s all to honor a little dog no one wanted.
The pooch’s story began in 1888 when the brown stray wandered into the Albany, N.Y., post office. The clerks there took pity on the homeless waif, fed him and adopted him as their mascot with the name “Owney.”
From that first day, Owney showed an odd connection with the U.S. mail.
“He fell asleep on some mailbags. He was attracted to the scent of the mailbags and followed them when they were placed on a Railway Mail Service train,” Henak says.
Where mailbags went, Owney went, riding atop the bags on trains traveling across New York state. And soon railway mail clerks noticed something almost supernatural about this little mutt. In an era when railroad wrecks were common, no train Owney rode on ever crashed. Mail clerks looked on the dog as a good-luck charm, and he became part of rail folklore.
Owney eventually rode across America in those train mail cars, and railway employees fitted him with a special collar to display souvenir tags from each of his stops. His collection grew to hundreds of tags, everything from baggage check tokens to freebie “good for” merchant tokens.
Some of those tags still exist, including tags from the dog’s celebrity visits to Milwaukee. A Milwaukee Journal newspaper account from May 11, 1895, chronicled one trip, which included a stop in the local chief postal clerk’s office and a media hookup. Owney won over the Journal reporter, who referred to him as “a famous dog is Owney” though “one eye has ceased to serve its original purpose.”
The account also referred to the tags Owney wore “indicating that the possessor is entitled to almost everything from a chance in a raffle for an upright piano to a free glass of beer.”
But no Rover could be satisfied staying put for long. Owney shipped out on a steamship and embarked on a world trip. He made such a stir that Japan’s emperor granted him an audience.
Owney continued to ride the rails until ill-health ended his travels. He died in 1897 after logging more than 143,000 miles and keeping his perfect safety record intact.
The U.S. Postal Service never forgot its lucky charm. Stuffed and mounted, Owney still stands watch at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., where he continues to get special attention. To get him ready for his postage appearance, “he has been fluffed up, cleaned up. He had been relatively untouched since the original taxidermy job of 1897, and was worse for wear. Now he looks fresh, bright and ready to tackle the next 100 years,” says Nancy Pope, the museum’s curator/historian and author of “The Post Office’s Best Friend: Owney the Mail Dog.”
Owney serves as an enduring icon for animal adoption.
“Owney’s story is particularly moving to us because he is truly a hero for shelter dogs everywhere,” said Angela Speed of the Wisconsin Humane Society. “From sleeping on the streets to traveling the world in style, Owney’s life was changed for the better because someone recognized the inherent goodness and intelligence of this special dog. We see dogs like Owney every day who are transformed from being unwanted animals to cherished family members.”
Read more: Journal Sentinel