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ZipUSA: 48222 On Assignment

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ZipUSA: 48222
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Zip: Westcott, MI

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By Andrew CockburnPhotographs by Victor José Cobo



Mail call afloat on the Great Lakes



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This is the hub of a community of about 5,000 sailors in continual motion. From April through mid-December they shuttle back and forth across the Great Lakes, from tiny remote iron ore ports on the coast of western Lake Superior, to Lake Michigan or Lake Huron for cargoes of construction stone or gravel, to Lake Erie's historic industrial ports like Toledo and Cleveland or even, especially on the Canadian grain boats, out to the oceans via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Sooner or later they all pass by here and look for the little mail boat to dart out from the dockside.

It is a community that is slowly shrinking. "This is the rust belt, a forgotten part of the country," reflects Jim Hogan, sitting behind what had once been his great-grandfather's desk. "I guess its heyday was in the forties and fifties, when everything ran on steel. There are so many fewer ships now [about 60 in the U.S. laker fleet, with another 80 Canadian ships], although they have gotten a lot bigger."

I heard a similar lament one evening high above the water in the pilothouse of the Buckeye, a 698-footer (212-meter) laden with 23,500 tons (21,300 metric tons) of iron ore pellets headed for Toledo. "Every time you look round, they've cut more men from the crews," grumbled Capt. Edward "Bud" Tambor-ski, as he eased the huge vessel down the river to Lake Erie. "This industry," he concluded, referring to lake shipping, "is dying."

The captain's gloomy mood became more understandable when I found out that earlier, as I was climbing aboard from the Westcott, the freighter's steering mechanism had momentarily failed. The Buckeye, with me halfway up the ladder, had come within a few seconds of plowing into downtown Detroit when the helmsman regained control. Blissfully ignorant of the near disaster, I had wondered why Tamborski seemed a little distracted when we met. Now, in the fading glow of a pink sunset, we were slipping silently along at just under 12 miles (19 kilometers) an hour, past the dramatic metal towers of the steel plants, refineries, and power stations lining the shore of what still looks like the industrial heartland of America. In the darkened pilothouse, lit only by the glow from the instruments, the quiet conversation was of storms on Lake Superior—25-foot (8-meter) waves—and the trickiness of navigating up the river to the ore docks in Cleveland, "like a snake," and how, working two months on and one month off, laker crews don't have weekends like most people, and whether the items they ordered from that catalog will be in the mailbag the next time they pass that way.

No one sounded like they'd rather be living somewhere else.

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The J. W. Westcott II makes some 6,000 deliveries a year, including mail and other supplies, to passing freighters. But what is included in that long list of other supplies? From the mundane to the weird, J. W. Westcott Company employees have seen it all: refrigerators, televisions, bicycles, gym equipment, golf clubs, replacement personnel, river pilots, even pets.

One woman sent her husband a large canvas bag full of golf balls so he could practice his golf skills from the deck of his ship. Another brought her poodle along as she joined her husband (the captain) on board a freighter. The crew of the Westcott put the little dog in the mail bucket and hoisted him up. As part of a delivery of food stores to a Korean vessel, the crew hoisted up a three-foot-long (one-meter-long) frozen tuna. Crews of passing freighters have even been known to put in orders for a dozen or more Domino's pizzas or gallons of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. Anything to relieve the monotony of life (and food) on board, right?

The J. W. Westcott Company also provides, upon request, river pilots to foreign vessels unfamiliar with the waters of the Detroit River area. Freighters from as far away as the Netherlands, Russia, India, Greece, Singapore, and Thailand come to the area to deliver or pick up loads.

What was the largest delivery ever made to a passing ship? A 4,000-pound (2,000-kilogram) electric motor. That one had to be hoisted aboard the Westcott by a crane and then lifted up to the larger ship's deck by another crane aboard the ship. Sounds tricky, but it was no problem. It's all in a day's work for the employees of the J. W. Westcott Company.

—Alice J. Dunn

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Related Links
J. W. Westcott Company
www.jwwestcott.com
The official website of the mail boat for zip 48222 provides an overview of their services.

J. W. Westcott Company on Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping
www.boatnerd.com/westcott
Find out more about the J. W. Westcott II, including current and historical photographs of deliveries. Link to boatnerd.com for more information on Great Lakes shipping.

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Bibliography
Pollack, Susan R. "Mail Boat Keeps Chugging," Detroit News, June 30, 2001.

United States Coastguard. "Report of the Capsizing and Sinking of the M/V J. W. Westcott II in the Detroit River on October 23, 2001 with the Loss of Two Lives," Marine Safety Office Detroit, October 7, 2002. Available online at www.uscg.mil/d9/wwm/mso/detroit/services/investigations/westcott.html.

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NGS Resources
Mitchell, John G. "Down the Drain?" National Geographic (September 2002), 34-51.

Lassen, Tina. National Geographic Guide to America's Outdoors: Great Lakes. National Geographic Books, 2001.

La Tour, Cy. "J.W. Westcott: Postman for the Great Lakes," National Geographic (December 1950), 813-24.

Williams, Maynard Owen. "By Car and Steamer Around Our Inland Seas," National Geographic (April 1934), 451-91.

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