Notes from the Past

Pigeon Posts II

A previous note introduced Pigeon Posts.  Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages for a long time.  The Rothschilds used pigeons in their communication network in the 19th century.  N. M. Rothschild (1777-1836) was honored by a display at the Museum of London.  He knew about Wellington's victory 24 hours before the British Government did.  Perhaps the most interesting 19th century use of pigeons was during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.  It is extensively described in The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871 by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E.

Another early use of pigeon post is not so widely known.  In 1894 brothers Otto J. and O. F. Zahn of Los Angeles established the first regularly scheduled flown mail service.  They operated their homing pigeon service between Santa Catalina Island and the city of Los Angeles.  At that time an underwater cable was not economic and wireless was not yet available.  They advertised 50 minutes to 1½ hours for flight to the mainland.

The Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service rates varied with the season and time but generally were 50¢ to $1 per message.  The rates were also adjusted for regular flights at 10:00 am, 2:30 pm, and at other times at special rates ("Charter a pigeon, I want to talk to my office!").  Their pigeons carried brief private messages and emergency requests for doctors.  On the mainland the messages were forwarded anywhere by wire or delivered locally.  The Zahns also acted as 'stringers' providing island news to the Los Angeles Times.  At one time the message rate was determined by the number of words and later by the size of the paper on which the note was written.  Forms were provided and duplicate copies were requested.

The service was discontinued after three years of regular and reliable operation due to being unprofitable.

Bibliographical Note:  The basic material on the Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service was found in Donald B. Holmes' Air Mail -- an illustrated history 1793-1981 -- an exceptional piece of philatelic literature.

Posted March 17, 2000

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