Tale of the Banker who (almost) broke the Postmaster’s back

April 28, 2021

“Some S.O.B. is trying to ship a whole building through the U.S. mail,” protested the postmaster of Vernal, UT, in an urgent telegram to Washington, D.C. [1]

He had reason to be miffed.

He was putting in 15-hour days trying to keep up with the ton of bricks descending on him. 37 1/2 tons, to be precise!

Entrepreneur William Horace Coltharp, a director of the Bank of Vernal, might have taken issue with the postmaster. He was only trying to ship the facade of the building; not the entire building!

This happened in 1916, when Coltharp wanted to construct a new building for the bank and other businesses. Though cheaper, locally-fired bricks would be used for the building itself, Coltharp wanted to use pressed bricks for the facade. His trouble: the nearest supplier for these more expensive bricks was in Salt Lake City, 125 miles away as the crow flies.

Transporting these bricks from Salt Lake City to Vernal was expensive using freight through private carriers. Coltharp discovered that it would cost him just half as much to send the whole load through Parcel Post, a relatively new invention of the Postal Service.

Restrictions, but not really

Only, the packaging restrictions for parcel post meant that the full load of 15,000 bricks for the project needed to be shipped using 1500 crates of 10 bricks each. The bricks were individually wrapped in paper before being packed in the crate. The stacked crates of bricks was a sight!

The beauty was that there were no restrictions on how many such crates can be shipped at the same time. So the shipments were arriving at a fast and furious pace, aggravating everything in the chain of transportation.

The mountainous terrain where Vernal is situated meant that the freight transport needed to loop South from Salt Lake City to Mack, Colorado for 272 miles, then go North to Watson, UT for 63 miles, and then make the last segment of 54 miles to Vernal using the railroad company’s trucks. Instead of just 125 miles, the bricks needed to travel nearly 400 miles. [2]

In one incident, the shipment caused havoc to the truck hauling it on the road segment. Struggling to climb uphill, the drive chain broke, resulting in a brake failure and a roll back of the truck, causing it to turn over and catch fire. Most of the bricks were lost.

While the post office eventually modified the limits of shipment to prevent shipment frenzies of this kind, Coltharp got what he wanted before that went into effect. So, the Bank of Vernal building got built as planned and still stands today with the adornment of those precious pressed bricks from Salt Lake Pressed Brick Company. Only, the Parcel Post Bank as it’s fondly called, bears the name of the new owner: Zions Bank.

Bank of Vernal building is now a historic landmark and bears a new name

What precipitated this shipment frenzy and crisis seems to stem from the pricing model that the postal service followed. Pricing was based on the 125 miles as the crow flies, without regard to the distance actually needed to be travelled. The private carriers were likely smart and set their tariff based on the actual cost.

Bank of Vernal wasn’t the only exploiter of this pricing imbalance. Several other merchandise like cement, plaster, flour, sugar, canned goods, etc. were exacerbating the troubles of the Vernal Postmaster. By one conservative estimate, the government was losing $25,000 to $30,000 a year due to parcel post traffic to Vernal. The situation was finally alleviated in November 1916.

Even the government can ‘fix’ things. It appears that they didn’t change the pricing to match the cost; rather, they limited the number of items a sender can send to a receiver!

‘Good things’ don’t last forever, but may last longer than you might expect!

In eternal lookout for a good bargain,

P. Venkat Raman


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