Encyclopedia Of Detroit

J.W. Westcott Company

The J.W. Westcott Company was founded back in 1874 by Captain John Ward Westcott. The company began simply, with John rowing a small boat out to passing commercial ships to deliver shipping orders and updates on routes and ports. From this humble beginning, the J.W. Westcott Company has become one of the most well-known ship-to-shore delivery services in the world.

With the invention of the telegraph, Captain Westcott began notifying shipping companies when their ships had passed through the Detroit River, and passing updated orders to the vessels. The company also quickly added mail to their list of deliveries. In 1895, after seeing the success that the Westcott Company was experiencing, the United States Post Office began running a competing mail delivery service, but the rivalry ended when the postal charter was granted solely to the Westcotts in 1948.

From April through mid-December, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the company offers ship-to-shore delivery service. In the early days, a rope would be tossed to the waiting rowboat by a passing ship. While being towed along ship’s side, a Westcott employee loaded correspondence and supplies into a bucket lowered to him by the ship’s crew. Once the pass-off was complete, the towline was released, and the rowboat headed off to serve the next vessel.

Long called “mail-in-the-pail,” the system remains little changed today. The J.W. Westcott was launched as the company’s first motor-powered boat in 1910, and during the busiest part of the season this small steamer might shepherd a number of rowboats between vessels simultaneously. In 1949, the J.W. Westcott II debuted as the primary carrier (no more rowboats), and remains so today. The Joseph J. Hogan serves as the company’s backup vessel.

No longer dependent on a towline, the service boat matches speeds with the target ship, and allow the larger vessel’s natural suction to maintain contact. Powerful engines and careful handling allow the suction to be broken once the visit is complete. The J.W. Westcott II runs over 6000 trips per year, and despite the daring nature of its delivery process, the craft carries a nearly spotless safety record. Unfortunately, on October 23, 2001, while delivering two pilots to a Norwegian ship, the J.W. Westcott II capsized and sank, with the loss of its two crew members.  

The J.W. Westcott II is the only ship in the country to have its own postal ZIP code – 48222. To further assist navigation, J.W. Westcott Company is an authorized agent for nautical charts, and operates the J.W. Westcott II as a pilot boat, delivering pilots familiar with the Great Lakes to foreign vessels as required by law. In addition to mail and pilots, the craft routinely transfers mechanical equipment, personal packages, laundry and even the occasional pizza.

In 2010, Capt. John Westcott’s great-grandson, James M. Hogan, became president of the company, keeping the firm under family management throughout its entire 140 year history.

Written by Brent Maynard

 


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