Bank by mail
William H. Coltharp was a shrewd businessman.
In 1915, as he was planning a new building in Vernal, Utah, to house retail spaces, offices and the Bank of Vernal, Coltharp decided that the upscale new building needed a façade of red bricks from Salt Lake City.
But he soon realized that paying private freight rates to ship them would be far too costly.
So he decided to mail them. And that decision forced a change in postal regulations.
Two years earlier, the U.S. Post Office Department had created a service called Parcel Post, primarily for those living in rural areas. By 1916, it had increased the maximum weight of an allowed Parcel Post package from 11 pounds to 50 pounds.
The service was a great success nationwide. In 1913, the year Parcel Post began, Sears Roebuck & Co. filled five times as many catalog orders as the previous year.
But it was especially important in Vernal, where long-hoped-for railroad service had yet to materialize.
The cost of shipping a package to Vernal by Parcel Post was significantly less than sending it by private freight. As a result, by 1916, approximately two tons of Parcel Post packages arrived in Vernal each day. The packages included everything from cement to agricultural equipment to canned goods. And that was before Coltharp began ordering bricks for his new building.
It’s about 125 miles as the crow flies from Salt Lake City to Vernal. But the road between the two was steep and rough. Shipping anything expeditiously between the two communities meant a 400-mile circular trip through western Colorado. That’s how the Parcel Post routed its packages.
First, materials were sent by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad from Salt Lake to Mack, Colorado. Then they were transferred to the Uintah Railway that headed northwest out of Mack, over Baxter Pass, to Dragon and Watson, Utah. At Watson, the packages were loaded onto trucks or wagons operated by the Uintah Railway, and ferried the remaining 54 miles to Vernal.
In 1916, it cost 54 cents to mail a 50-pound package from Salt Lake City to Vernal, less than half the cost of shipping it by a private freight service.
The Coltharp Building required more than 15,000 bricks from the Salt Lake Pressed Brick Co.
Each brick was individually wrapped in paper, then packed in crates of 10 to meet the 50- pound weight limit.
Altogether, 1,500 crates, weighing a total of 37.5 tons, were shipped to Vernal from May to November of 1916. But it wasn’t always easy.
The drive train on a truck hauling bricks from Watson to Vernal broke, causing the truck to roll over an embankment.
The driver wasn’t injured, and some of the bricks were salvaged.
The postmistress in Watson called for every available horse and wagon to help haul the bricks to Vernal, but the crates of bricks still piled up outside the Post Office.
Eventually, private citizens in Vernal began volunteering their teams and wagons to help get the bricks to Vernal.
The Post Office soon realized the flaw in its business model. As Postmaster General Albert Burleson put it in a message amending Parcel Post rules, “It is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail.”
Burleson’s rule clarification came in early November 1916, limiting packages from one sender to a single address to no more than 200 pounds per day. If the rule had been in effect when Coltharp first ordered the bricks, it would have taken more than a year to deliver them all — even if they were shipped on weekends and holidays.
But Coltharp’s project was completed before the new rule took effect, in November 1916. The bank moved into the new building in February 1917. It was dubbed “the Parcel Post bank” by locals. These days, Zion’s Bank of Vernal resides in the same building.
The new rules didn’t end the use of Parcel Post for shipping large amounts of goods. As late as 1921, the Vernal Express newspaper reported that an average of 6,650 pounds of Parcel Post packages arrived at the Vernal Post Office every day. And that didn’t include regular mail or perishable materials.
“Space is now inadequate to handle Parcel Post shipments and regular mail,” the paper said. Nearly all merchandise sold at stores in Vernal and nearby towns arrived via Parcel Post.
Vernal was unique because it was a relatively large community isolated from any railroad. But it wasn’t the only place where people took advantage of Parcel Post.
In February 1914, the parents of May Pierson used Parcel Post to send their 48-pound daughter from their home in Grangeville, Idaho, to her grandmother in Lewiston, Idaho. She arrived safe and sound — and was delivered to her grandmother’s house by the mailman. It cost the family 53 cents.
Changes continued to be made to the Parcel Post rules over the decades. And, eventually, modern highways and better trucks provided less expensive, alternative means of shipping packages and bulk materials to and from Vernal.
Today, if you wanted to ship 50 pounds of bricks from Salt Lake City to Vernal, it would cost you just under $18, whether you used UPS Ground shipping or a private freight service.
Correction: My Sept. 11 column said a replica of the Apatosaurus that Elmer Riggs unearthed near Fruita in 1901 is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. In fact, the actual bones are displayed.
Information from: “The Parcel Post Bank,” Outlaw Trail Magazine, Winter 2008, Uintah County Regional History Center, Vernal, Utah; “The Bank of Vernal: The Parcel Post Bank,” United States Postal Service; “Precious Packages: America’s Parcel Post Service,” National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institute; Utah Digital Newspapers, digitalnewspapers.org.