Accomplishments and Records

An Extreme Example of Banking By Mail

The largest thing ever sent through the US mail was an entire building

What do you do when a community needs a bank, but it is too far away from the beaten path to ship the supplies there? That’s exactly the problem faced by the residents of Vernal, Utah at the start of the 20th century, until one man — supported by the U.S. Postal Service — came to the rescue.

The year was 1916. Vernal, Utah saw a lot of money changing hands because of the booming mining, honey production, and ranching industries. With so much cash, the demand for a bank was obvious. There was only one problem: the economy might have been booming, but Vernal, Utah was far from the center of the developed world. More than 150 miles from Salt Lake City, the small community lacked easy access to roads, railways, and ports.

The need for a bank was for more than convenience. The lingering characteristics of the Wild West still showed up from time to time. Notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy was less than ten years in the grave, and the memories of Cassidy’s Wild Bunch riding through Vernal on the way to and from their favorite hideout, Brown’s Hole, was fresh on the residents’ minds.

The people of Vernal have always been entrepreneurial; to this day, it is the one place where you can purchase a license to hunt dinosaurs. Influential citizens of Vernal pushed their campaign to bring a bank to their community. For a time, a makeshift bank operated out of an available storefront. A bulletproof counter may have protected the teller, but for the long-term security of the money, itself, everyone knew they needed a proper bank building.

Along came William H. Coltharp. He pitched the idea of a two-story, all-brick building. The building would not only be functional and secure, but it would also be pleasing to the eye. Coltharp planned the building, using homemade red brick for the interior walls and textured brick, made by the Pressed Brick Company of Salt Lake City, for the exterior.

Coltharp’s design was readily adopted. Soon it was time to place the order for 80,000 bricks. That’s where things got complicated. Given the distance to Salt Lake City and the poor conditions of the roads and the absence of a connecting railroad, the cost of shipping the bricks to Vernal shot through the roof. The bricks themselves cost 7 cents each, but the cost of shipping them by wagon freight was a staggering 15 cents per brick.

Coltharp put his creative thinking toward a solution. One day, as he walked past the post office, an idea started to take shape. Coltharp discovered that postal rates were much cheaper than wagon freight, and if he had the bricks mailed from Salt Lake City to Vernal, the postage would be a mere seven cents per brick — less than half the cost of transporting them by wagon.

The postal regulations put a maximum weight of fifty pounds per parcel in those days. That meant no more than ten bricks could be sent in a single parcel. Fortunately, there were no restrictions on how many parcels could be sent at a time. Not to be dissuaded from his objective, Coltharp set to work shipping the bricks — in 8,000 separate parcels.

If you think this did not cause a bit of concern by the postal workers, you are mistaken. Postmaster General Albert S. Burlsoon received a rather frantic-sounding telegram from the Salt Lake City postmaster. The federal government soon came to the rescue, assigning extra wagons, drivers, and strong-armed freight haulers. The extra investment in resources paid off, and the bricks were delivered just in time for the arrival of winter.

There are several life lessons from this story. One of them was learned by Vernal Postmaster Eddie Young. Before the bricks arrived, Coltharp approached him and let him know he was expecting “quite a lot” of mail in the coming days. Coltharp wanted to know if Young could arrange to have the mail delivered directly to the site of the new bank. Young is reported to have had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and liked to flaunt his authority. He was quick to quote postal regulations that all mail had to be delivered to the post office. Young said that Coltharp would have to come to the post office to pick up his mail like everyone else.

Young was able to assert his authority, but at a cost. A few days later, as the parcels began to arrive and stack up, Young was forced to swallow his pride and seek out Coltharp, pleading with him to let him deliver the parcels to the bank site, instead.

Another lesson was learned by the Postmaster General. By the time he was aware of the Vernal bank matter, some 30 tons of bricks were already on their way, with another ten waiting for shipment. It was too late to stop this particular abuse of the Postal Service, but clearly something had to be done to close this loophole. While the bricks were still making their way to Vernal, a hasty rewrite of the postal regulations implemented a restriction, limiting the total weight that anyone could send to one person in one day to 200 pounds.

With the bricks safely and economically delivered to their destination, construction of the bank building commenced as planned. The next year, 1919, the Bank of Vernal was the first to be admitted to the Federal Reserve System. The building still stands today and remains in use as a bank, now a branch of Zion’s Bank.

Lots of unusual things have been sent through the mail, including the Hope Diamond and a man who escaped slavery. The bank at Vernal, however, remains the largest item ever shipped through the mail.

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