2010-07-15 / Front Page

Post Office building turns 50

By Geoff Campbell

At left, Bill “Mac” MacCarthy delivers the mail with his hound, Tramp, around 1970. At right, the Jamestown Post Office building was moved from Narragansett Avenue to Melrose Avenue in November, 1928. Photos courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society At left, Bill “Mac” MacCarthy delivers the mail with his hound, Tramp, around 1970. At right, the Jamestown Post Office building was moved from Narragansett Avenue to Melrose Avenue in November, 1928. Photos courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society A post office is host to the stories of a town’s people – every letter to Santa, every get-well wish and every birthday card is part of the collective tale.

The Jamestown Post Office building will turn 50 this summer. And during the past five decades, the building and its community of postal workers have become an integral part of island culture and popular history.

The current building – the 10th Jamestown Post Office building since 1847 – was dedicated on Aug. 13, 1960. The Newport Daily News announced the ceremony, which included politicians, clergy and a Naval honor guard.

Then-postmaster Stephen J. Zweir was preparing to manage “a symbol of the modern businesslike approach now being applied to postal improvements throughout the nation.”

Considered an innovation at the time, the U.S. Postal Service continues to lease the building from Federal Properties of Providence, as it first did in 1960.

But though the building hasn’t changed much, operations have.

Since the building opened its doors, the staff of eight has increased to 13. In 1970, there were two routes – one rural and one city. The mail was mostly “raw” then – unsorted and waiting for everyone, including the postmaster, to pitch in and divide, sort and distribute.

Today, most of the mail is sorted off-island. According to current Jamestown Postmaster Charlie Burns, “94% of the mail for Jamestown arrives at the branch sorted into ‘walk sequence.’”

And, yes, there is still plenty to do.

There are now three rural routes and two city routes. The current facility was built before East Passage and West Reach Estates – and before Beavertail had winter delivery.

Talk of expansion was inevitable.

Federal Properties of Providence, as reported in the Jan. 27, 2000, issue of the Jamestown Press – sought to double the size of the facility from the current 2,500 square feet to 5,000.

According to the Press, the 5,000-square-foot number was derived from a postal service formula that takes into account the town’s population, the number of postal routes, as well as a number of other factors to determine optimum size.

The post office has been the “work home” to letter carriers like Mac McCarthy, Paul Brunelle and Linda Warner. Warner was a rural carrier who drove her own car on a route that took her to either end of the island.

She delights in recounting tales of delivering interesting mail, like a ready-for-the-hive Queen Bee in a box, automobile tires and a bumper, and live chicks.

It was “a wonderful place to work,” she said. “Everybody did their job, and it was like a family.”

The increase of non-U.S.P.S. delivery services, faxes, email, Internet technology and video conferencing has had some impact on both the volume and nature of mail. Holiday card deliveries are down and so is first-class mail. Business mail, advertisements, small package shipping and magazines are all up.

Brunelle, who has from time to time served as the “officer in charge,” points to automation and advancements in mail-sorting equipment as the fundamental reasons for increased efficiency in handling mail.

Highly evolved optical character readers can scan and decipher handwritten and typed addresses with extreme accuracy, he said.

That was not the case in 1960. Improvements in efficiency, changes in user options – such as e-mail and non-U.S.P.S. shipping services – and the ongoing recession have all impacted mail volume and the number of U.S.P.S. employees.

According to the U.S.P.S. website, the total number of career employees has decreased from 705,000 in 1985 to 597,000 in 2010 – after peaking at 800,000 in 2000. The number of pieces of mail handled annually is down to 177 billion in 2009 from its peak of 208 billion pieces in 2000.

Here in Jamestown, a steady increase in the island’s year-round population has kept the employee headcount at the post office relatively stable since the mid-1980s.

Employees spanning five decades at the Jamestown Post Office speak to the sense of community and specifically, to the quality of the relationships with colleagues and customers.

They describe it as a great place to work, where everyone can be counted on to do their job and where there exists a healthy balance between work and fun.

As Burns put it, “You just feel it when you walk in the building.”

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