Express mail, not an overnight creation

WAY BACK WHEN

A railroad opening in 1840 sparked Alvin Adams' vision

March 20, 2004|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN STAFF

I can overnight it to you" is a catch phrase today for being able to quickly and reliably transport packages, letters, securities, documents or just about anything worldwide.

Whether it's London or remote Tasmania, the ubiquitous trucks of Federal Express, Airborne Express or United Parcel Service - perhaps more recognizable these days than a bottle of Coca-Cola - can be seen rumbling along city streets or rural roads on their appointed rounds.

The idea that people and businesses would pay for such swift and reliable service was the brainchild of Alvin Adams, a Vermont orphan who spent his youth with his brother handling teams of horses at a New England stage stop.

He moved to Boston, married, had nine children, and at age 33, lost his produce business in the Panic of 1837.

It was the opening of the Boston & Norwich Railroad in 1840 that triggered Adams' entrepreneurial spirit. He asked railroad officials for an exclusive franchise to establish an express service between Boston and New York City.

After the franchise was awarded to another applicant, Adams, undeterred, purchased a pass aboard the steamers that regularly traveled between New England and New York.

Traveling between the two cities each day, Adams carried a valise packed with letters and parcels that customers had paid a fee for him to deliver.

In 1840, the total corporate assets of the fledgling Adams & Co. consisted of "two men, a boy and one wheelbarrow," Adams wrote.

By 1844, however, Adams had purchased the assets of a competitor.

"In four years I was ahead of Harnden and about that time he died insolvent and Adams & Co. purchased his interest in the business and for twenty-five years, Adams & Co. have owned all the express lines between New York and Boston," he wrote on the company's 47th anniversary in 1887.

"Adams' meteoric rise in a field of myriad competitors was perhaps due to two personal qualities: his ability to attract talented and loyal employees, and his business sense that enabled him to rapidly acquire competing companies at favorable prices," said a recent monograph marking the company's 150th anniversary.

With the California Gold Rush of 1849, Adams quickly entered the Western market and, according to the company history, it was the first express company to follow miners into the California gold fields.

On Sept. 7, 1849, Adams announced a new express service to be operated to San Francisco from the East Coast via the Isthmus of Panama. Wagons conveyed goods across the isthmus for placement aboard ships. Service was later expanded across the Pacific to Hawaii and China.

"And company lore has it that at least one slave, known as Box Brown, was packed in a box and shipped to freedom via Adams Express," said the history.

The company managed to stay in business during the Civil War, and carried pay to Union soldiers by Adams Express, and to Confederate soldiers by way of Southern Express Co.

By the time of its incorporation in 1854, Adams Express had acquired eight rival East Coast express company competitors and had expanded service to Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio, and to coastal Southern states. Agents allowed the company entry to European markets. At Adams' death in 1877, the company was worth $27 million and employed 15,000 people.

The company's roots in Baltimore date to the early 1840s, when it began a long-term relationship with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad whose trains it used to ship goods westward.

For years until the 1904 Baltimore Fire, the company's offices were at 7 Light St., a block away from its present location at 7 St. Paul St., in downtown Baltimore.

In a 1964 article in the Sun Magazine, Robert P. Gaston, who had worked for the company, recalled a 1906 gold shipment that arrived at Pennsylvania Station aboard sealed express cars.

The shipment was placed in a one-horse wagon for transfer to the company's warehouse at 504 North St.

"I was afraid the load would break the wagon, because gold weighs 1.203 pounds to the cubic foot. The bags of gold flattened out the springs of that wagon until they were touching the axle," Gaston wrote.

Gaston covered the gold with hay to discourage questions from bystanders. The driver laid a Colt revolver on the wagon's seat and reached the warehouse without incident.

"A man, a boy and a Colt revolver to protect all that money! Imagine how much protection a big money shipment like that would require today," he wrote.

During World War I, the U.S. Railway Administration took over operation of the nation's railroads. The federal government decreed that express operations of the companies including Adams Express, Southern Express (a subsidiary), American Express and Wells Fargo would be sold to the government-run American Railway Express Co.

After USRA control expired in 1920, American Railway Express Co. continued operating.

"That changed in 1929 when the eighty-six principal U.S. railroads provided the old express companies a big payday: the railroads formed a new monopoly company, Railway Express Agency, by purchasing shares of AREC held by Adams Express, American Express and Wells Fargo," according to the recent history.

Adams Express, which has been a publicly traded company since 1873, reinvented itself as a closed-end investment fund after leaving the express business. The company also has Petroleum & Resources Corp., a noncontrolled affiliate.

Since 1976, its headquarters has been in Baltimore.

On March 30, Adams Express will hold its annual meeting at Baltimore's Center Club. A highlight will be a restored Adams Express wagon that is part of the collection of the B&O Railroad Museum.

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