Quick! Name one thing we have in Detroit that no other city has. I’ll give you a hint. It’s on a boat. Give up? It’s the nation’s only floating zip code!
Along the banks of the Detroit River, just south of the Ambassador Bridge, sits the J. W. Westcott Company, home of the J.W. Westcott II mail boat – zipcode 48222.
This busy boat may be little but it has a big job. Not only do passing freighters and ships rely on the J.W. Westcott II to deliver mail and packages, but the boat also acts as a water taxi, provides pilot boat services, and sells and delivers snacks and smokes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Meanwhile, inside the J.W. Westcott station, visitors can browse the company’s bookstore for U.S. and Canadian nautical charts, U.S. Government Publications, maritime history books, postcards and more.
The small and mighty J. W. Westcott II is 45 feet in length and can cruise up and down the river at 15 knots. (1 knot is equivalent to approximately 1.15 miles per hour, so that’s about 18 miles per hour). And piloting this boat is no easy task. To make a delivery, her captain has to match the speed of the destination ship, make the delivery via five-gallon steel buckets, and then pull away being careful not to get caught in the wake from the larger vessel. It’s a delicate exchange, and one she’s been making since 1948!
But her story starts long before that. The J. W. Westcott Company was established by John Ward Westcott in 1874. In 1868, when John was 20, he earned his master’s papers and became the youngest freshwater captain at the time. Fortunately for his fellow ship masters, John was as innovative as he was skilled. Shipping companies often kept their destinations a closely guarded secret – so secret that many ship masters didn’t even know where they would wind up. As a result, ports were a congested mess. To address this problem, John developed the idea of a “marine reporting agency” that sent information to ships while they were in transit, to help them plan their travels, assess supplies mid-trip, and help keep things organized. John would row out to passing boats in a row boat (a row boat!) where a rope and bucket would be sent over for John to put in his messages.
In 1948, J.W. Westcott II became an official U.S. Postal Service mail boat and she’s been delivering mail and packages ever since. No job is too big or too strange – she’s delivered mail, pizzas, TVs, and everything in between.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in Detroit every day, and one of the best things I’ve discovered is the J.W. Westcott II. It made me stop and appreciate how hard the people here work to keep things going without ever getting half the recognition they deserve. If you have some time, you should head on down to the J.W. Westcott Co. station and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
To learn more about the J.W. Westcott II, check out this neat little documentary short, or this narrated slide-show. It almost makes me want to give up my day job and become a captain of a Great Lakes freighter – almost!