Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Last Frontier: Alaska by Post Office

Welcome to Part I of my explorations to Alaska! I had the privilege of spending a week in the Last Frontier and have been looking forward to sharing my research and experiences with you.

I'm reminded of The Simpsons when I think of Alaska. (Warning: cultural reference ahead.)

Who shot J.R.? Err, Mr. Burns?

Were Mr. Burns to enlist Superman to, say, pick up Rhode Island and place it above the middle of the United States in his effort to block out the sun, he would merely stifle a couple of counties in central Kansas. Pick up and place Alaska across the continental United States, and you'd pretty much lose the Central Time Zone. Just pondering the vastness of our 49th state can be exhausting.

Welcome to your more temperate Last Frontier. Let's plop it down on the country and see where things stand. Imagine your cross-country road trip now that Alaska's northeast corner buries Chicago and Green Bay. Alaska's capital, Juneau, becomes the new Atlanta, though a bit less (100 times less) populated. Mountainous islands even protrude out to Jacksonville. Iowa and Kansas have become a lot less flat; Minneapolis is now covered with (more?) permafrost; and the South Dakota Badlands abut previously Arctic Inuit villages. Alaska's southwest mainland would stretch across Lubbock, Texas, and the western Aleutian Islands now offer a great view of the desert near Tucson, not to mention the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite all this, only one-fifth of the mainland U.S. would actually be shielded by an Alaska sunblocker.

SPF 663,300 square miles?

We've established that Alaska is big. But most of its area is not easily accessible. To finish up our Simpsons-inspired narrative, out of that entire area of the Alaska-sunblocked United States, only parts covering Missouri are spanned by 'normal' passenger vehicle-friendly roads—and even most of those networks get rather sparse. So starting out in "Missouri," home of Anchorage International Airport, there's no way to drive to what had been Chicago, Atlanta, or even next-door Kansas.

This neat little page allows you to visualize the enormity of Alaska compared with the U.S. (as per the map above), or with respect to any individual state: How Big is Alaska?

Planning an Alaska Postal Adventure

If you're going to explore the communities of Alaska, you'd better pair your destination with the right mode of transportation. Each part of the state is best suited to a different means of transport. One is by land; two is by sea; and three is by air—take that, Paul Revere. If you're going to just explore the 'civilized,' road-connected corner of Alaska then, by all means, fly to Anchorage and rent a car. You can drive up to Fairbanks, you can drive south to Seward, and even out to the Yukon border if you're feeling particularly adventurous. But you can have this basic experience anywhere, which is why I always promised myself that when I visited Alaska I'd get at least a smidgen of the bush plane/sea experience. We'll have some unique experiences with car, plane, and boat in this story. Alaska was my 50th state, and this trip was definitely worth the wait.

I've been an operations engineer and I found the logistics of visiting the remote post offices of Alaska to be overwhelming. One original possible plan for this trip involved flying to Anchorage, then taking a smaller plane an extra hour and a half out to Nome (population 4,000—the biggest community for hundreds of miles), then on a still-smaller plane from Nome to further remote villages (with one more iteration of this process necessary to get reach every last remote post office). Exploring Alaska in this way you can visit communities such as Shishmaref, which recently voted to relocate from its island in the Bering Strait to a location on the mainland because rising sea levels are submerging the whole village. It is one of many shoreline communities in Alaska that are on the front lines of climate change. But I digress.

Shy of outright chartering planes to multiple villages in northern and western Alaska, timely and non-bank-breaking transportation options to villages like Shishmaref is scant. Ravn Alaska operates the most robust network of flights here, often village-hopping across several communities before ending back at the main hub (e.g. Nome). (See map below.) For the determined postal tourist it could be well worth the ~$100 per hop for the chance to check off multiple post offices across a stretch of Alaska with a single booking. Unfortunately, the planes are often on the ground for less than five or ten minutes, and company managers could not guarantee me that they wouldn't leave me marooned with no luggage in a place with no hotels or B&Bs, if the trip to and back from post office ran a couple minutes long. So while they were friendly to talk with over the phone, "we won't promise you anything but it's better to book sooner than later," is not exactly a prospect one can plan a trip around. There go the Bering Sea and Arctic Circle expeditions.

Ravn, if your social media guy is listening, help a guy out here!

A more modest exploration proved more manageable. I decided to make it out to a handful of less remote road-inaccessible villages along the southern Kenai peninsula in south-central Alaska. Most of the Kenai is accessible by car, and the city of Homer could be used as a launching point for visiting the several remaining outlying communities. This approach offered several interesting post offices, including a couple accessible to the public only by air, and others only by boat (in my instance, the actual mailboat!). There's another post office only accessible by driving through a three-mile, one-lane tunnel shared with train tracks. Sounds interesting to me!

For the village-hopping enthusiast intent on neither paying $300/night for a two-star hotel in Anchorage nor experiencing temperatures much below freezing, I found October to be a cost-effective and thermally acceptable time to visit this part of the state. Tourist season was over and many attractions and parks were closed for the season, but for our unique purposes that wasn't a primary concern. Practically speaking, travel costs were at least 60% lower and there were still several good hours of sunlight at this time of year.

By the Numbers

Despite comprising 17% of the land area of the United States, Alaska houses less than 1% of the nation's post offices. Of 30,624 active retail U.S. Post Offices in May of this year, Alaska had 206, ranking 44th of the 50 states. This placed it slightly ahead of Utah (197), but substantially less than several of our more compact states, including New Hampshire (232) and Vermont (267). Many communities not served by an 'official' post office in Alaska are served by Contract Postal Units (CPUs), many of which are also classified as Community Post Offices (CPOs). These 74 operations count in my book, bringing the grand total of Alaskan postal points of interest to just more than 280 (when you include facilities such as carrier annexes and mail processing annexes).

Less than one-third of all the postal operations in the state are legally accessible with a standard rental car driven out of Anchorage, meaning at least 200 postal facilities necessitate prior planning and reservation by plane or boat. During my 5.5 days in Alaska I was able to visit 43 post offices (15% of 280): 39 by car, three by plane, and one by boat.

USPS maintains 'official' post offices throughout rural corners of the Alaska, many of which are PTPOs: Part-Time Post Offices, postmaster-less ("POStPlan") operations that report directly to its USPS District office as opposed to a neighboring Postmaster. They would be known, as they are in most other corners of the country, as RMPOs—Remotely Managed Post Offices—if they were within 25 miles of some other post office that could manage them. Because most small-town post offices are reasonably close to (less than 25 miles away from) their neighbors, there were 12,000 RMPOs in operation around the country in May 2016 compared to 402 PTPOs. Of those 402 PTPOs 119 — about 30% — were in Alaska.

119 is by far and away the greatest PTPO count for any state. As of May 2016 Montana is next with 51; then Oregon: 24; New Mexico: 23; and Wyoming: 22. Texas, the second largest state in the country, has merely 21 of its 1,600+ post offices designated as PTPOs. Alaska also has the fewest number of RMPOs of any state: 4, several fewer than Delaware. This is effectively confirmation of the fact that villages in Alaska can be very far removed from their larger neighbors, and that many smaller Alaskan postal operations are contracted out.

Part 1: A Little Anchoragement

Anchorage is the heart of Alaska: its 300,000 residents comprise 40% of the entire state's population. In many ways it's like any other U.S. city; it's got malls, parks, (some) historic buildings downtown, and cultural institutions for locals and tourists alike. Not to mention tons of suburban sprawl. It differs primarily in terms of climate, duration of sunlight (ranging from 6 to 18 hours a day), and accessibility to stunning surroundings.

Postally speaking, Anchorage is the only place in America where you can find an open post office at 10 PM and it will still be sunny. (Midyear, at least.) Anchorage's Main Post Office is located at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and the facility also houses Alaska's primary mail processing facility. (You can also mail out to receive a North Pole postmark, "mailed from Santa," from this facility.) The road leading to this facility is Postmark Drive—nice touch, Anchorage/ANC. By far the largest postal facility in Alaska, the MPO/P&DC building houses six acres of floor space. The building was inaugurated in 1976. And most incredibly, the retail operations are open until 11 PM seven days a week. That's right, even on Sundays. Talk about service!

Anchorage, AK: Main Post Office and P&DC
Anchorage Main Post Office and P&DC

The main post office previously occupied a Federal Building downtown, which was constructed during the latter years of the New Deal (think: 1939-1940). That building still houses federal offices as well as an expansive Alaska visitors center. It can be found at the north end of West 4th Ave. between F St. and G St., kitty corner from the old Anchorage city hall and (another) visitors center.

Historic former main post office, Anchorage:
Old Anchorage post office

Anchorage has been without a primary downtown postal facility since the Downtown Station post office closed in 2013. Retail operations are available at a comparatively small unit in the corner of the fourth floor of Anchorage's 5th Avenue Mall (see below). (Carriers operate from another post office, about a mile to the east.) Great clerk, though!

One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that the majority of the post offices in Anchorage look almost exactly alike. But don't just take my word for it; see for yourself:

Collage of Anchorage post offices

It's like those post offices were all separated at birth! As you might suspect this is no coincidence; these buildings were all designed off the same plan and were constructed at the exact same point during the mid-1980s. It is said that one Postmaster General from the era encouraged this while anticipating growth in the region. The footprints for many of these buildings is identical to the square foot! The buildings' sloped roofs make sense given, shall we say, the prevalence of wintry Alaskan weather events.

Here's a selected snippet of data from USPS's Owned Facilities Report. This spurt of postal development extended to other communities in Alaska as well, and those POs bear a resemblance to what we've just seen above. We'll see a couple of these more outlying locations later on.

Some data from USPS's Owned Facilities Report. Gotta love FOIA.

Beyond all these facilities there are two others of note: Spenard Station, which actually houses the offices for the Anchorage Postmaster (at a side entrance, separate from the retail lobby); and Midtown Station, above whose retail windows resides USPS's Alaska District offices. Generally speaking you could expect to find both at a city's main post office / primary mail processing facility.

Anchorage, AK: Spenard Station post office

Anchorage, AK: Midtown Station post office

Add a couple more stations and a pair of CPUs and we've just about covered the postal network of Anchorage. Unfortunately two Anchorage-area POs were off-limits to little ol' civilian me: Elmendorf AFB and Fort Richardson (now known as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) each have operations behind guarded gates.

One nice touch, which I saw in operation at more than one Alaska post office, was the provision of hand trucks for public use in the customer lobby! You'll be thankful for it when you get a sizable package delivery (which many Alaskans do after receiving their annual Permanent Fund Dividend). Here's a triple-stack at one large post office in the area!

Helpful post office
I spy the makings of an awesome Office Olympics sport...

Alaska Bypass Mail

The U.S. Postal Service is subject to what's known as the Universal Service Obligation (USO). What it essentially means in practice is that the organization cannot discriminate to which communities it provides its services based on profitability; it must serve everyone. In fact, it must provide a "maximum degree of effective services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining."

Alaska, as with just about everything else, is a bit of a special case. With respect to the USO it begs several questions, such as: how are communities without roads to be provided with mail and freight services that anywhere else would be handled by ground surface transportation (i.e. trucks)? You can't just drive to your neighborhood Costco for bear-sized bulk packs of toilet paper or Cheerios. So how can these communities import goods from the greater outside world in any semblance of a cost-effective manner? And, of course, how does the Postal Service get regular letters to the remote reaches of the state?

Enter Intra-Alaska Mail Service and, for large shipments, Alaska Bypass Mail—a service relied on by thousands of Alaskans in dozens of villages across all corners of the state. It's basically an Alaskan hub-and-spoke air distribution system. A recent PRC report states it nicely: "Alaska Bypass Service allows mailers to ship goods such as food and other cargo on pallets directly to rural customers in Alaska. Commercial airline carriers deliver goods on pallets to hub airports ... Smaller airline companies or independent pilots then break down these pallets and deliver the goods to remote communities accessible only by air, which are commonly called bush sites. The shipped goods "bypass" the Postal Service's network." Bypass Mail isn't touched by USPS employees or mail processing equipment, where it would gum up the operations that handle letters and standard parcels.

So, starting from primary facilities in Anchorage and Fairbanks, certified airline contractors fly pallets of products to a handful of secondary airports at large towns (pop. a few thousand) located a few hundred miles away: air hubs. USPS even operated a couple of specialized facilities known as Mail Processing Annexes at two of these hubs, in Nome and Bethel (the latter of which closed upon completion of a newer postal facility). Here is the now-former Bethel facility, taken in 2000 by Postlandia friend John Gallagher:

Bethel Mail Processing Annex

From these air hubs Bypass Mail pallets are broken down and transferred via smaller "bush carrier" planes to their final destinations ("bush sites"). And at the end of the line? You're often left with bulk consumer-size cases of products secured in the back of a small plane (e.g. Cessna), ready for hand-off to the community's general store. The Washington Post has a fantastic slideshow, with descriptions, of the full Bypass Mail process in action. It'll open in a new tab so you won't lose your spot here; check it out.

I found Alaska-style grocery delivery surprisingly fun to watch. While not strictly speaking Bypass Mail at this location, you can watch the process in action as some gets delivered on bush planes to a couple of the villages we visit on the Kenai. You'll see more of the community in the next post. Here are a couple of images of groceries arriving in Port Graham, Alaska, for delivery to the Variety Store:

Bypass Mail delivery, ready for unpacking
Bypass Mail delivery

You can see that some of the supplies brought in include: cereal, juices, milk, and pet food; essentially, everything we take for granted on the mainland.

The Washington Post reports that 10-15% of Bypass Mail is actually soda.

There are no standard USPS carriers or even USPS-staffed post offices in dozens of these villages. Retail and P.O. Box services in such cases are handled by Contract Postal Unit (CPU)/Community Post Office (CPO).

Transporting items by air costs more than it does via truck, unfortunately, and so serving these rural communities costs USPS money. According to the Postal Regulatory Commission this is part of the cost of supplying services to all American communities per the Universal Service Obligation. That PRC report stated: "With Alaska Bypass Service, the Postal Service pays for the cost of air transportation from hub airports to bush sites. The Alaska Air Subsidy is the difference between this cost of air transportation from hub airports to bush sites and the average cost of ground transportation if it were available. ... The Alaska Air Subsidy has declined since FY 2011 from $123 million to $107 million in FY 2015." How many villages in Alaska are served by Bypass Mail service? On the order of 150, the overwhelming majority of which are not accessible by the primary Alaska road network. (Deadhorse, at the far north end of the Dalton Highway, near the Arctic Ocean, is an exception.) According to a USPS Inspector General report "more than 180 of [Alasks's] rural communities accessible only by air year round." Here is an excerpt of a map of Bypass Mail air hubs and bush sites, from that OIG report. A list of communities served (sorted by their respective hubs) can be found in USPS Handbook PO-508.

Partial Alaska Bypass village map

For Bypass Mail communities it is critical that USPS manage the hub-and-spoke network in an optimal manner. A recent change for one remote village proved to be the difference between life and death for one pilot in Alaska's unforgiving landscape, and the difference between well-stocked store shelves and hungry residents in one Native village during the harsh Alaska winter. You can read about the experience of the citizens of Quinhagak after USPS decided to use an unexpected tertiary village of Togiak as an air hub for Quinhagak, as opposed to well-established Bethel, ("queen-a-hawk") here.

Hope you enjoyed your thorough introduction to Postlandia's take on Alaska. There's plenty more from this story to come, including trips to a couple of Native villages you can only reach by boat or by air. Come tour a the Halibut Capital of the World, as well as historic Native Russian Orthodox village next time on Postlandia! I have videos of landing and taking off from the airport with the Crooked Runway.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Treaty of 1794, and the Canadian Post Office Accessible without a Passport

Along the far northern border of New York with Canada (Québec) lies a bit of an oddity: a Canadian post office that you, the everyday American citizen, can drive to from the U.S., mail your letters from in Canada, and re-enter the States without having a passport or passing trough Customs. This anomaly is due to a jut of land passing barely through the 45th parallel—the line that defines the border (+/- some surveying error) between U.S. and Canada in Vermont and eastern New York—causing a wee bit of Canada to be attached to the United States. Driving from this little bit of Canada to another point in Canada? Gotta pass through the U.S. first. Check out this map; you can zoom out to get a greater sense of the landscape as well:

The land, known as Saint Régis or Akwesasne, is part of the Mohawk Nation; it is a (reservation) territory that straddles both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Our particular point of interest is located 20 minutes northeast of Massena, New York and about 75 miles southwest of Montréal. For this little spit of Canadian land, the only way in or out is through the U.S. This, combined with the 1794 Jay Treaty, which affirms that Mohawk members may pass freely across the United States-Canadian border, means that the border is not built up with Customs and Inspection infrastructure. What are you going to do, build a wall, or stop and inspect people whose houses lie on the border, who have only one means of exiting and entering a 0.2-square mile piece land in a close-knit Native community? Not a chance. The crossing is "free"; you can cross back and forth between the U.S. and Canada at this little point, and you have a choice of U.S. Post Office or Canada post office when it comes to mailing.

On the U.S. side is the Hogansburg post office, ZIP code 13655. Located just off the Akwesasne reservation and just off New York Route 37, is of a standard late-century design and is staffed by friendly personnel. It is located 2.0 miles from the Canadian border.

Hogansburg, NY post office:

Heading north you'll be hard-pressed to identify the actual border between the U.S. and Canada. The best visual identification stems from the speed limit sign seen here:

Located a few hundred feet beyond the border (and actually visible in the photo above) is the Akwesasne, QC Canadian post office (postal code: H0M 1A0). It is found in the Angus Mitchell Memorial Community Centre with an -r-e. Oh yes, you're really north of the border now!

Akwesasne, QC post office:

Here's a look back into the U.S., actually at an Akwesasne school bus stop, from just inside the Canadian border.

So there you have it. Hope you enjoyed this little slice of Canada and of trivia! (Notes: Al Jazeera provides insights into the lay of the Akwesasne land, borders, and governance here. An official, detailed map of the reservation, which also extends into Ontario, can be found here.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

This is Sparta!! (And Milledgeville, Georgia)

Milledgeville and Sparta, Georgia are two county seats respectively located 50 and 30 miles northeast of Macon. They also have two similar post office / Federal Buildings from the 1960s I thought would be interesting to show.

Almost nothing about this building says "post office." I drove clear past it once, even knowing exactly where it was supposed to be. A modest etching in marble, "Federal Building," resides above the front door, and there's a snorkel mailbox in front. Aside from that and a cornerstone concealed by bushes at the left corner of the building, you'd barely know what this building is.

Sparta, GA: Yvonne Ingram-Ephraim Post Office Building
Yvonne Ingram-Ephraim Post Office Building

Sparta Federal Building: 1962 John F. Kennedy cornerstone

Long-time readers of this blog might know I'm really not a fan of cookie-cutter '60s federal buildings, but Sparta's and Milledgeville's were a bit different. First, they assimilate some vernacular architecture stylings from the romantic Deep South. Second, they actually have artwork inside, a throwback to FDR's New Deal and my favorite era of postal architecture, the grand buildings from the early 20th century. Also, nice black marble!

Sparta, GA Federal Building mural

Milledgeville, GA: United States Post Office and Federal Building

Milledgeville Federal Building: 1960 Dwight D. Eisenhower cornerstone

Milledgeville, GA Federal Building murals

The old post office building in Milledgeville was built during the early 20th century, and now houses the local Chamber of Commerce.

Milledgeville, GA: old post office
Old Milledgeville post office

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Paradox in Colorado

I drove through Paradox Valley for the sole reason of visiting new post offices and photographing more American communities. Paradox was an unexpectedly beautiful village; so much so that it made up for the surprisingly low 25-mph speed limit coming around the mountain from Utah. (Hey, I'm a New Yawker.)

"A Place Called Peculiar: Stories about Unusual American Place-Names," page 38, by Frank K. Gallant reveals the origin of the town named Paradox in the far western reaches of Colorado. The town was named "in the early 1880s after Paradox Valley, so called because the Dolores River cuts through the canyon walls at right angles, an unusual geological formation. Early settlers found the valley almost inaccessible... The only way into it was to unload all the wagons, dismantle them, and then lower the pieces by rope to the floor of the valley."

You can get a bit of a taste of the landscape with this satellite view (here, southwest of Paradox):

You know what? The best way to share the visual experience with you is to just show you photos taken along the way. So let's have at it! Starting with where Utah Route 46 becomes Colorado Route 90 at the state border heading east.

Colorado state line, Utah Route 46 / Colorado Route 90

The village of Paradox in the distance:
Paradox, CO in the distance

View of Colorado Route 90 past the turnoff to Paradox:
Colorado Route 90

Loving the old store in Paradox!
Paradox, CO store

Of course, here's the Paradox post office:
Paradox, CO post office

Paradox Community Center:

Telephoto of Paradox from Route 90:

Hope you enjoyed! 'Til next time,

Thursday, January 19, 2017

New Canaan, Meet New Post Office

In our last story I noted the festivities surrounding the opening of the then-new grand downtown post office in Orlando, Florida. That brought me to thinking: could you imagine such a celebration for a new post office opening today?

In New Canaan, Connecticut, where the post office had not been located at a permanent facility for three years, the District Manager had to respond to claims that USPS had really desired to close its facility: "This goes on all over the place, not just in New Canaan ... We've been very successful in finding new Post Office residences in towns where, in some cases, it was very, very difficult to find the real estate, whether it's a lease, rental or actually built." Says the manager of the District that effectively closed the Tariffville and Yantic, CT post offices with no intention of replacement. In recent years the Connecticut Valley District has also purged historic postal facilities as if on ipecac, and took three years to re-open a post office in downtown population-120,000 Stamford. Can you really blame New Canaan for being a bit concerned?

The new permanent post office finally opened in New Canaan, and customers are thrilled with the amenities, notably the fact that parking isn't terrible anymore. (I can attest to the awfulness at the temporary site. I pretty much had to park by... the new post office. I wish I were making that up.) Perks for local customers now include 24-hour lobby access for P.O. Box access and a self-service kiosk.

(The loss of USPS's lease at its non-permanent facility could not have been such a surprise internally. Just look at its listing in USPS's Leased Facilities Report.)

Fun fact 1: A former Postmaster discussed the issue of post office relocation from a perspective you won't usually hear. I found this essay enlightening and I think it's worth a read. Here is an excerpt:
Most post offices are downsized to a smaller operation than truly needed ... resulting in longer wait times. New Canaan currently has four retail transaction windows. The flawed data may result in the new office having as few as two transaction windows. Once those retail counters are gone, they are never coming back.
Fun fact 2: There was even a mobile postal van unit providing retail services across from the old post office during the transition period!

Without further ado, let's look at the three recent actual-building sites for the New Canaan post office.

1. 'Old' Post Office, 2 Pine St., open for 55 years, closed Jan. 18, 2014
Old New Canaan post office
(See the health food store now at the site of the old post office here.)

2. Temporary Post Office, 90 Main St., Jan. 21, 2014 to Dec. 2016
Temporary New Canaan post office
(Note the banner in lieu of a sign above the door!)

3. New post office: 18 Locust St., opened Dec. 30, 2016.
New New Canaan post office
(Courtesy a Google Street View image, Oct. 2016. Hope to drop by and snag my own photo for here soon!)

I've gotta say I like the building housing the new facility. Bringing back that federal style! You can see more post offices of the interior here. 'Til next time.