The J.W. Westcott Co. has an established reputation as a mail boat, delivering letters and messages to freighters passing through the Detroit River.
Despite that reputation, letters and messages no longer encompass all that the J.W. Westcott brings to ships.
Over more than 140 years, the kind of cargo the boat carries has changed alongside the evolution of delivery. Amazon packages fill the J.W. Westcott storeroom. Pizza delivery falls under the company’s purview and so do people and pets.
The J.W. Westcott Co. was established in 1874. John Ward Westcott started the business, using a rowboat to deliver messages to passing ships, putting mail inside a pail that was then hoisted up.
It wasn’t until 1948 that the company earned one of the titles it’s famous for—the world’s first floating postal ZIP code. That’s also when it became an official U.S. Postal Service mail boat.
“With the emergence of the internet, all the modern technology, it’s really depleted a lot of the mail over the last few years,” said Bill Redding, the daytime dispatcher for the J.W. Westcott Co. and one of its boat captains.
The company peaked at around 1.6 million pieces of mail in the late ‘90s, Redding said, while 2018 probably saw around 650,000 to 700,000 pieces of mail.
“But even though that end of it has dropped down, it’s picked up quite a bit in other areas, like recently dealing with these Amazon packages,” Redding said. “We get so many of these Amazon packages over to us, crew members ordering shoes, clothing, phones, iPhones.”
Another popular delivery item for the J.W. Westcott is pizza.
“It’s funny because a couple of the Canadian freighters, they don’t get by here all that often, but when they do they normally like to order some pizza, something that they normally don’t get to eat out there,” Redding said. “So they order through the Sicily’s (Pizzeria & Subs) up the road here, 10, 12 pizzas.”
Earlier than that, in the ‘50s, the J.W. Wescott added another service: delivering pilots to freighters. Ships coming into the Great Lakes from overseas have to take on a pilot to navigate.
With those pilots, sometimes animals tag along.
One captain used to take his dog, Susie, with him, J.W. Westcott Senior Captain Sam Buchanan said. He remembers delivering a cat named Nigel to a ship before, as well as a nanny goat.
For Redding, the delivery of a donkey from Duluth stands out in his memories.
“You name it, we’ll do it,” he said.
It’s that kind of attitude that has let the J.W. Westcott Co. stay strong for 145 years and four generations.
Current owner Jim Hogan’s mother was a Westcott.
“I didn’t realize the importance of it until I got older,” Hogan said. “When I came out of high school and then the summer months started, we needed somebody. It was just something you had to do. But now it’s become very historic and very humbling.”
Hogan is getting ready to pass the company to his son, Jimmy, which would put the J.W. Westcott in the hands of the fifth generation.
“I’m excited about the future,” Hogan said. “I’m gratified to have been a part of that past, but when I was growing up I had no idea that 46 years would go by just like that.”
I live at Riverfront Towers facing the Ambassador Bridge. I watch the Wescott boat go out every day. It’s fascinating.