Cincinnatians Thronged the Train Station to Meet Owney the Mail Dog

The nation’s most famous mutt always caused a sensation when he passed through town in the 1890s.

A long list of celebrities have visited Cincinnati over the years, from Oscar Wilde to Lily Langtry and the Marquis de Lafayette, but few caused a sensation equal to the scruffy “tramp dog” known as Owney.

Throughout the 1890s, a scruffy tramp dog named Owney captivated Cincinnatians whenever he drifted through town on one of the many mail trains servicing the region.

Image digitized by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

No one knows how Owney came into this world; his apparently tangled pedigree is a mystery. All we know is he showed up one day in the Post Office at Albany, New York. The mail clerks shared their lunches with the little mutt, and he found the mail sacks quite satisfactory for bedding down, so Owney hung around. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [March 23, 1893], one of the clerks took Owney on a New York Central mail run:

“That settled it. The fast run just suited him, and since then he has been on the go from one end of the United States to the other. He disdains coaches and Pullman sleepers, and will ride in nothing but mail cars. There he is at home. His bed is under the counter, and during the day his favorite pastime is at the door with his paws braced upon the sides, viewing the country. If the landscape suits, Owney remains in this position for hours. If it doesn’t come up to his standard he turns in disgust and lies down out of the way of the working clerks.”

Mail clerks noticed that no train carrying Owney was ever in a wreck, so they began to think of the pooch as a good-luck charm. In addition, Owney fiercely defended the mail sacks and would let no one except a mail clerk get anywhere near.

Although always returning to Albany, Owney hopped outbound mail trains continually. The local clerks asked their colleagues around the country to report in whenever Owney showed up, and thus began a tradition of hanging a medal on the dog’s collar as a souvenir of his travels. It got to the point where so many medals graced his leather strap that Owney could barely lift his head, so the U.S. Postmaster General, John Wanamaker himself, gave Owney a sort of cape on which to display his medals. Even so, the cape got so overloaded with additional medals that the Albany clerks removed and saved most of them each time he reappeared in upstate New York.

That tradition was upheld every time Owney passed through Cincinnati. In 1893, Enquirer Publisher John McLean clipped a solid silver tag onto Owney’s cape and the newspaper reported Owney’s journeys almost daily for the next couple of weeks. A month after leaving Cincinnati, the dog was in San Francisco, heading toward Mexico:

“He is said to be an expert train jumper and has frequently displayed this skill by leaping into the mail car after the train has started. Among the several dozen medals which dangle from Owney’s neck is one engraved as follows: ‘Cincinnati Enquirer, J.L. McLean.’ Before the dog’s departure for Mexico last night the local Post Office clerks had engraved a silver medal which was added to the already large list now belonging to the dog.”

Somehow, Owney made it back from Mexico and arrived in Chicago in time to be displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in the U.S. Postal Service pavilion.

It was another year before Owney returned to Cincinnati, passing through on his way southward. Word quickly got around, and hundreds of Cincinnati fans crowded the station where Owney held court from his mail car. The Enquirer [July 19, 1894] noted that the little dog had put on a few pounds, apparently not able or willing to turn down a handout. His cantankerous nature was on full display:

“He will not permit any familiarity with any one now, except railway mail clerks, and as he stood in the door of an L and N mail car in the Grand Central Station last night he took delight in growling at all passers-by who stopped to look at him.”

A month later, after a jaunt through Tennessee, St. Louis, and San Francisco, Owney was back in Cincinnati, a guest at the Grand Hotel for the annual convention of Railway Clerks. While attending the convention, Owney joined 850 clerks at the Grand Theater for a performance of Gus Heege’s farcical comedy, Rush City. Owney made a guest appearance and got a good review from The Enquirer [September 7, 1894]:

“‘Owney,’ the famous postal dog, appeared in the second act, and from all parts of the house arose calls for this pet of the brave boys who assort the mails. ‘Owney’ advanced to the footlights as he recognized his friends, and, wagging his stump of a tail, gazed at the crowd as cool as an old veteran behind the footlights.”

While in town, the celebrity tramp was interviewed by The Cincinnati Post (through a translator, of course), and the newspaper reported [August 31, 1894] that he seemed to be enjoying his visit to the Queen City:

“Seen by a Post reporter, Owney’s bow-wows were interpreted by an admiring friend to be a statement that he was glad to have a few days in Cincinnati, where he could be well fed and meet all the old boys with whom he has been on familiar terms these many years.”

Before leaving Cincinnati, Owney stopped by a meeting of the Teachers Institute, where, after a morning full of discussion concerning curricular innovation, the assembled educators added their own medal to the array on Owney’s cloak.

Owney left Cincinnati for the longest trek of his life. From Tacoma, Washington, he boarded a ship in 1895 headed to Japan, where he was received like royalty and sent along to China, across Asia, and through Europe before landing back in the U.S. He made his way across the country, arriving in Tacoma 132 days after he’d departed.

In later years, Owney’s temper shortened as his eyesight gradually failed. Mail clerks still coddled and protected the little mutt, but he kept wandering off. In Toledo one day in 1897, he bit the wrong person and was put to death. The mail clerks had him taxidermied, and he sits on display today at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, where all of his 1,017 medals are preserved in the collections. Owney was honored with a commemorative postal stamp in 2011.

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