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The Postal Service Comes to Canada

Homesteader's postal box, Viking area, Alberta.As brave Europeans packed their belongings and made their way across the Atlantic to settle in North America, the ideas of the postal service were imported with them and slowly took hold in the United States and Canada of the day. In Canada, the opening of a post office in Halifax was announced by the Halifax Gazette in 1754. Today, it is considered to be Canada’s first official post office.

In 1763, when New France came under attack by the Imperial British Army, a rudimentary mail service was established from Montreal to Quebec and Albany, New York. Private mail was accepted but did not always arrive at its destination within two weeks, as promised by the service. Mail was carried by foot and birchbark canoe, and delivery depended entirely on weather conditions. When Lake Champlain froze over in winter, canoe delivery was impossible.

By 1820, there were 52 offices working together throughout the eastern part of today’s Canada: 23 in Lower Canada, 19 in Upper Canada, and 10 in the Maritimes. Yet, the delivery of mail was haphazard and the system as a whole unreliable. In the following decades, new postal routes were continually being opened and postal officials appointed in an effort to facilitate communication across kilometres and borders, and to unite people across the vast land mass of North America.

The inauguration of Canada’s first railway line in 1836 had a very large impact on postal delivery and heralded a new era of communication and movement throughout the country. The use of the steamboat to carry mail did the same, but in both cases their value was limited, as their use was centred in the more developed eastern parts of the country.

Post office at Bankhead, AlbertaAs Canada’s history evolved and expansion to the West progressed, new developments in the area of postal delivery were made to facilitate communication. The same was taking place in the United States: private companies capitalized on the introduction of railways and steamships as a means of mail delivery. In response, the American government provided steep competition by greatly reducing its costs.

Transformations in the workings of the mail system in both the American and Canadian West were constant, as the need for an efficient, reliable service could not be underestimated.

For an 18-month period in 1860-61, the legendary Pony Express connected the western state of California all the way to Missouri. Young men on agile horses raced across rough terrain and passed mail from horse to horse in a relay system. The delivery of a letter from the start of the course to the finish took 10 days and the power of numerous horses and riders, but helped unite the West with the East and opened communications between the states. Though short lived, the Pony Express perfectly portrays the extreme means that people went to in order to facilitate communication.

Rail lines had yet to penetrate most regions of North America, so that postal service was still largely limited by the maximum speed of human carriers and their mounts. This was even truer in Canada than in the United States; letters may have been circulated quickly in the cities, but post on the frontier remained a dodgy affair.

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