Every day, the Casco Bay Lines ferry leaves Portland, Maine, and traverses the coast, making stops at six islands on its course. Along with passengers, vehicles and freight, it carries mail for the U.S. Postal Service to island residents Monday through Saturday. These days, families sit on its deck in masks, socially distant, watching the shoreline and the ever-expanding view: beach homes on a cliff’s edge, a rocky islet emerging from the ocean floor, smaller boats sailing in the shadow of an overcast sky.
With each stop, a crane descends from the ferry’s top deck, inaccessible to passengers, with a crate the size of a carry-on suitcase, full of packages and letters. People in bright-blue T-shirts unload the crates on the dock, handing their contents off to mail carriers or Casco Bay Lines contractors.
The Postal Service has surged into the national conversation in 2020 like in no year before, as President Trump continued his push to transform the agency and as changes instituted by his new postmaster general led to widespread mail delays — all while an unprecedented number of Americans are mailing in their ballots for November’s elections. In August, Trump openly acknowledged that he was blocking $25 billion in federal money to the Postal Service in an attempt to limit mail-in votes.
The agency, in short, is under duress. But it’s a pressure that remote U.S. post offices, including those on the coastal islands of Maine, have been feeling for years.
In 2012, to save money, the Postal Service slashed hours in 13,000 offices nationwide, and Casco Bay’s Cliff, Chebeague and Long islands were on the list. Places like these islands don’t have the population to earn enough to make up for operation costs, explained Harry Katz, a professor at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. Metropolitan areas, with millions of people who may buy goods from the post office, are more likely to return on investment.
But the beauty of a universal Postal Service, as the women who lead Casco Bay post offices demonstrate, is that the financial return is not the only value.
Six mornings a week, sunshine or Maine sleet, amid a pandemic or not, Kim MacVane unlocks the door to the Long Island post office and flips the sign in the window to “Open.”
MacVane, 64, is the town’s postmaster. Serving a year-round population of 200 people, spread across the island’s approximately three square miles, she’s responsible for everything from janitorial duties to paperwork to staffing the front window. On the mainland, someone in her position would only oversee the office — a single room in a gray apartment complex — responsible for managerial duties and paperwork. But she’s happy with her busy days and front-facing role as one of two postal employees on the island.
“One of my favorite things about the job is seeing the island community on a daily basis,” says MacVane, who previously was Long Island’s school bus driver. “Working at the post office, I get to see the people.”
The community is the very reason MacVane chose to move to the island. Her three children, “with three little umbrellas,” went off to Sunday school 22 years ago on the island, where her family lived seasonally to accommodate her husband’s work as a lobsterman, spending most of the year five miles away in Portland. She waved goodbye as her kids walked away from the house. She says she remembers feeling a sense of calm, and she decided at that moment to live there, in a community where she knew her neighbors would look out for her children, where familiarity breeds accountability.
During the covid-19 pandemic, Long Island residents who cannot leave their homes call the post office if they need stamps. The mail carrier then delivers the stamps to individual homes, trusting that customers will pay at the post office later. MacVane says they always do.
On any given day, familiar faces stop by the window to inquire about their packages: a large envelope with heart medication for an elderly neighbor, a 24-pack of toilet paper for a family of four, a beehive for aspiring apiaries. The island has no pharmacy, and the only grocer is often closed, making MacVane’s post office in many ways a one-stop shop, the closest thing residents have to a megastore.
Even so, it’s probably at far greater risk of closing than any city Postal Service branch.
Cliff Island residents sometimes seek momentary shelter inside their post office, located on the first floor of a house the color of burnt umber, a town bulletin board hanging next to the entrance. That’s because, besides the schoolhouse, the post office is Cliff Island’s only heated public building in the winter, and one of only a few establishments open year-round.
There are few amenities in general on the island of approximately 60 residents, who live in small houses clustered on its west side, away from the ocean. The grocery store closes in the winter, as does the church.
Amy Lent, 46, is the postmaster. She got the job in 2012, after the former postmaster retired, and says the post office is an impromptu town gathering place. Friends catch up while checking their post office boxes, and some stop by to talk to her — sometimes about things most Postal Service employees wouldn’t hear.
“I’m like a therapist,” Lent says, laughing.
Unlike on Long Island, there is no door-to-door delivery on sparsely populated Cliff, which decreases the cost of operation. Lent explains that a post office, even one that doesn’t deliver, is essential on such an island: The Cliff location’s closure would mean a three-hour round trip by ferry to send or pick up packages and letters, including necessities such as medicine.
When people suggest that companies such as FedEx and UPS could meet the needs of Cliff Island residents by themselves, Lent laughs. In the wintertime, when snow and below-zero temperatures are the norm, she invites the FedEx and UPS contractor to use the post office to do his paperwork. She wants him to stay warm and knows that he would otherwise be in his car, parked along the windy shoreline, doing it there while waiting for the ferry.
Lent explains, “with all due respect,” that the FedEx and UPS contractor for the island is “a very kind 84-year-old man without an office who works out of his car and uses the post office’s scanner.” And the post office fulfills most FedEx and UPS deliveries on the island.
In fact, the Postal Service is responsible for most deliveries for sparsely populated remote places nationwide. UPS and FedEx often don’t have locations in the faraway countryside, mountains or island towns, and they don’t have the resources to deliver to such areas because of the high costs and low financial return. While FedEx and UPS sometimes use a hired contractor in far-off rural spots, the post office is still typically responsible for the packages, since UPS and FedEx both have programs that use the Postal Service’s “last-mile delivery” service.
Kathleen Floyd used to be a Casco Bay FedEx and UPS contractor herself — until, 14 years ago, area postmasters “plotted” to get her into the Postal Service fold. It worked: She’s been Chebeague Island’s mail carrier ever since.
Floyd moved to the island in 1978, after high school, and met her husband, a lobsterman. When she got her Postal Service job, she provided the family’s health benefits, which she previously didn’t have. Most postal positions on the islands have few benefits because of the 2012 initiative to cut employee hours, but Floyd was able to maintain her health benefits and retirement fund.
Every day, she takes the ferry from Long Island, where she lives, to Chebeague. She sorts the mail before getting into her car, rather than the Postal Service vehicle provided to mainland mail carriers.
But Floyd isn’t resentful. In fact, she still seems awestruck by her life.
“Sometimes my surroundings are so beautiful, I need to get out of the car to take a picture,” Floyd says.
Her colleague Sheila Putnam has been Chebeague Island’s postmaster for eight years. Putnam sought a quiet life, one an island provides. She’s from Washington, D.C., and attended Dartmouth College. The college’s isolated New Hampshire location inspired her to agree when her then-husband, a lobsterman who grew up on Chebeague, suggested moving to the island.
Putnam became the children’s librarian, a job she held for 10 years, but kept an eye on the higher-paying postmaster posting. She first applied for the postmaster relief position, to be the postmaster fill-in. But after four months, she says, she was “running the show.”
“It’s just: I live on an island,” Putnam explains of her job. “I want to work on an island, and there are only so many jobs on an island.”
Commuting to the mainland for work is an option, but a daunting one: On farther-off islands like Cliff and Chebeague, that trek takes up a large part of the day.
What’s at stake if such outposts are lost?
Richard R. John, a historian who has chronicled the Postal Service, believes the answer is much more than business.
In such a sprawling nation, John says, private enterprise is not a replacement for public service. And he strongly suspects that the loss of a universal Postal Service — a possible result of budget slashes and blocked funding — would accelerate the “hollowing out” of areas like Casco Bay. “The implication is it would further the decline of rural and small towns in America,” John says.
Post offices in remote places persist, despite their high operation cost and low return, because their significance cannot be summed up by finances. A school is a public service, and a hospital is a public service, and, in the United States, so is the mail.
“Everyone’s entitled to delivery wherever they live. Allowing [privatization] to happen would be the death of postal delivery to people who really depended upon it,” says Chuck Zlatkin, the legislative and political director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union. “No moneymaking organization, looking strictly for profit, cares about any kind of commitment to serve the public.”
Indeed, work like MacVane’s consists of the kind of public service that receives little praise but requires great responsibility. On a particularly busy day back in June, packages delivered to Long Island covered every surface, stacks overflowing onto the floor as Lorinda Valls, the Casco Bay Lines contractor, transferred her minivan’s contents to the post office. MacVane had to call her husband to bring an extra folding table from home.
“We had 126 packages one day last week,” MacVane says, sighing. She explains that many of the packages were FedEx deliveries, and her workload continues to increase amid the pandemic.
Behind the door to the service window, MacVane wears a cloth mask, which, at the office, she never takes off. The door is decorated by a colorful child’s drawing of a postcard on poster paper, thanking “L.I. Postal” for being “the backbone for us all” during the pandemic. Outside, a young boy bikes toward the post office and abruptly stops. He walks up to the front window, pressing his face and hand against the glass. He taps the window, and MacVane looks up.
No question is needed. MacVane swings the service door open and quickly steps out to tell the boy that his mom doesn’t have mail today. He shrugs and runs back onto his bicycle, speeding away.