The variety of ways that mail has snailed or raced from Gananoque to its recipients over the years is quite interesting. ‘Rocket Mail’ has to be the most unusual and with good reason, since it’s not a frequently used form of mail. There are many other things about Gananoque’s postal history that are story worthy. If you know what to look for, touring the visible postal history in the town is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
We had letter writers in Gananoque before we had postmasters, and we had postmasters before we had post offices. Our founder, Joel Stone, was both literate and a letter writer. There are records of Joel’s letters to his family. It is clear from the diary of Joel Stone’s sister, Dothe, that there was an expectation of letters from him, from the first days of settlement. These letters would have been carried by private individuals, often by a circuitous route. Letters would get passed off like a relay baton, as the carrier reached the closest point of their travel to the letter’s final destination. There are records of Joel’s letters, to his second wife, Abigail, sent to Gananoque with supplies he had purchased. Joel Stone was Gananoque’s first postmaster. Ephriam Webster was likely the next postmaster. Both Stone and Webster were also Customs Collectors, which would likely have been convenient for facilitating mail movement, possibly from a building used as the Customs Office.
The year I found associated with Ephriam Webster as Postmaster was 1817. It is a notable year for mail, since the first regular stagecoach mail service began to run from Montreal to Toronto. However, the distance between Prescott and Kingston continued to be serviced on horseback. Until that time, mail service to and from Gananoque was likely provided by Joel Stone’s schooner, which was used for transporting goods to and from other settlements and towns within reach.
Stamps were not used in the early days of postal service. If there was payment due, the recipient paid when the letter arrived. Since there was no certainty that a letter traveling the wilds of the New World would reach its destination, this probably made sense. The big problem with pay on delivery was that a recipient could refuse the delivery after having looked at the envelope. There are stories of the envelopes carrying as much information as the letter, certainly disclosing the location of the sender.
“The Province of Canada began issuing stamps on April 23, 1851. The first were in the values of 3d, 6d, and 12d*. Designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, the Threepenny Beaver depicted a beaver in an oval frame, and is considered the first Canadian postage stamp.” The change to using stamps didn’t happen immediately, when the sender began to pay for mail. Postmasters found it easier to just write PAID on the envelope. Gananoque’s post offices during this time were in General Stores.
Caption: This rock, in the Horticultural Park at the corner of Main and Market Streets, marks the location as the first general store post office run by C & J McDonald. [Photo from the collection of GanWalking]
There were two well-known Gananoque merchants designated as postmasters by the Government, who worked out of their stores. In 1828, John McDonald, Gananoque’s third Postmaster, had free mailing privileges. He was the “J” of C & J MacDonald. By 1855, D.F. Britton was Postmaster, and the post office was in the Britton General Store at 84 King Street East.
In 1888, Gananoque’s first Federal Post Office was opened at 110 Stone Street South. The building still stands today, as a heritage designated building. In 1912, the Post Office moved up the street, to the corner of King and Stone Streets.
While the Post Office was at the corner of King and Stone Streets, rockets captured the public imagination. In the 1930s, the German scientist Gerhard Zucker was one of those who experimented with using rockets to carry mail. After initial success in England, explosive results in Scotland meant failure to convince the British that postal delivery by rocket was viable. In 1936, Zucker was scheduled to make rocket flights across the U.S. and Canada border for the Third International Philatelic Exhibition held in New York. Unfortunately, Zucker was prevented from coming as planned because he was arrested in Germany. Karl Henning, another German, had prepared stamps, covers, and cancellations for the flights, which he brought to New York as planned, along with the rocket launching rack. The Henning souvenirs, colourful reminders of rocketry's pioneer era, are still turning up.
In 1972, the third and current Federal Post Office opened at 201 King Street East. This unassuming modern structure has two displays that tell of Gananoque’s postal history. One of their display cases exhibits postal tools discovered abandoned in a storeroom. The other display case is currently empty but is soon to be the home of Rocket Mail! This is so fitting as this post office was part of the modern rocket mailings from 2012 – 2015. An American rocketry duo and a Canadian teamed up to do what Zucker had not been able to do, send mail by rocket. The mails consisted of two sets of 50 letters, showing off some of the Henning 1936 stamps. One batch was launched from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and another from Gananoque’s WW2 airstrip. The Canadian Envelopes are postmarked by the Gananoque Post Office.
The 2014 Rocket Mail was sold on eBay. At the time, GanWalking was following the wise advice of Gananoque’s Beddows Philatelics ."There are so many stamps out there, pick a subject you are interested in and collect related to that." There don’t seem to be any Gananoque stamps, so the best GanWalking could do was to get one of the rocket mail envelopes, some vintage Gananoque post office postcards, and a Gananoque Tourist Bureau envelope.
- “d” is the abbreviation for a British penny.
- Looking for more information about Rocket Mail, Gananoque Postal History or just early postal service? These are great places to start.
“ROCKET MAIL COVERS FLOWN OVER US AND CANADA” and “CANADIAN MAIL ROCKET MAKES FINAL DELIVERY ACROSS WWII AIRFIELD - http://ashleymcisaac233.blogspot.com/
- For early postal service in Leeds, “POST OFFICES 'IN THE PIONEERING DAY” by Paul Cote in the February 1996 Newsletter of the Leeds and Thousand Islands Historical Society. http://www.ltihistoricalsociety.org/February1996.pdf
- “Postage stamps and postal history of Canada” - Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postage_stamps_and_postal_history_of_Canada#:~:text=The Province of Canada began, the first Canadian postage stamp.
- This year’s Gananoque Ontario Stamp Show is Saturday, August 12, 2023. https://ganstampshow.ca
By Sherry L.B. Johnson
Sherry Johnson lives in Gananoque and is a writer and researcher, for GanWalking, which is focused on heritage storytelling, research and building a strong accessible research and genealogy community. Home is a “handyman special” under slow improvement, with things like solar panels and heat pumps a priority. Retired from food service and hospitality, Sherry says she has, "become one of those old ladies you watch to see what she’s going to get up to next."
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