Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rock Ridge Bank, Telegraph, and Post Office

Welcome to Rock Ridge.

The Bank building in Rock Ridge houses the only bank in  town as well as the Telegraph office and the Post Office. I'll cover them in three different sections in today's post.

The Bank

Banks that operated more than a century ago had a different set of rules than we are used to in today's world. There was no FDIC (created 1933) to insure them against loss, no Federal Reserve (created 1913) to set interest rates, and no competition from Credit Unions (first one in the USA opened ca. 1908). Regulation from the State and Federal governments was minimal, mainly due to the lack of rapid communication and travel -- it is hard to audit a bank that is hundreds of miles away when it could take a week to get there and another week to get back to your office to file paperwork. Competition is now fierce, but back in  the 1800s most towns only had one bank and it was enough.

Most of us know how banks are supposed to work -- they safely store money for depositors, and loan that money out against collateral to borrowers who repay the loan with interest. Some of the interest on the loan goes to the depositors and the rest is used to operate the bank. The invention of fractional reserve lending (allowing the lending of multiples of the money the bank actually has on hand) and ETF (Electronic Transfer of Funds) drastically changed the way banks are run, as did the ever-widening ability for just about anyone to open a bank. Since we're apolitical here at Blue Collar Prepping, I will let you go about your business without having to hear my opinions concerning the banking industry as it operates today.

Banks of the 1800's had a few problems. Since they were the main collection point of money in a town, they were the target of armed robbers (who weren't always successful). The vault or safe that they stored money in was large and heavy, making it expensive to ship in from a manufacturer. They generally relied on the vault door or safe for security after hours, although a large bank may have hired a night watchman and maybe a guard for the lobby during the day. Money in the forms that most people use for daily transactions was/is bulky, and shipping it was an invitation to robbery.

They also had advantages over the banks of today. Without the regulations and rules, they were able to run with fewer staff and could pass the savings on to their customers. Most of the smaller banks were family run or operated and were part of their community, so they actually knew their customers.

If you want to set up a local bank after the "big one" (whichever "big one" you think may happen) happens, you'd better have a few basics:

  •  Secure storage. 
  • The trust of your community. 
  • Book-keeping skills and a way to record transactions.
  • Customer service skills.
  • The skills to appraise collateral (or an appraiser on payroll). 

The Telegraph Office

As the railroads marched west, they cleared a path for companies to set poles and string wires alongside the tracks. The railroads themselves installed many telegraph lines in order to be able to manage their schedules and fleets on the longer routes. Western Union (WU) is the name most people associate with the telegraph, but there were many smaller companies before 1851 when WU was founded and started buying up all of its competition. By 1861 the East Coast of the USA was connected to the West Coast by telegraph wires, only 11 years after London was connected to Paris by telegraph wires (1950). In 1871, WU started offering money transfers by way of telegraph, making it easier  for people to travel without having to carry large amounts of cash (not a new idea, since the Knights Templar provided a "note" system for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages that filled the same purpose) as well as sending money to family in distant locations securely.

The work of Robert Morse and his assistants gave us the Morse code, a simple method of rapidly transmitting information one letter at a time over long distances. Morse code used a simple switch, called a key, to send pulses of electricity through a wire to a relay. The original Morse design used a strip of paper fed through the contacts of the relay and when the relay closed, it would mark the paper. Operators quickly learned that they could understand the "clicks" of the relay better than the marks on the paper so they stopped using the paper strips. A beginner can send and receive Morse code at a rate of 5 words per minute (wpm), and there are still competitions where experts can push the rate up to 60 wpm. That's faster than a lot of us can type on a keyboard. Morse code is still used by ham radio operators, and still gets the job of transmitting information over long distances done. Morse code is taught as a language to be heard instead of as a method of sending individual letters. Users of Morse code don't hear the dots and dashes, they hear words and phrases- just like you don't see the individual letters I'm putting down here, you see the words that they form.

Telegraph messages were not cheap. The sender usually paid to have his message sent, paying by the word, and the average message in the mid-1800s cost about a dollar. Remember, this was when gold cost $35 per ounce. Compare that to your cell phone bill! Many businesses and families worked out "codes" of their own to be able to send a message using as few words as possible in order to cut the cost of communicating. Most telegraph offices would have "runners", young boys who would deliver a (normally sealed) telegraph to locations in town for the tips they would get from the recipients.

Setting up a more modern version of a telegraph office would be easy if you already have a ham radio set and have made contact with others in the area. Sending and receiving messages for others for a fee is frowned upon in the aftermath of a natural disaster (ham radio operators are usually the first to get information out after a tornado/hurricane/earthquake), but in a scenario where society has collapsed it might be a viable form of work. There should be no shortage of potential "runners" if the electricity is out for a long enough time.

The Post Office

I know everyone has a story about the local Post Office, and rightly so. The US Postal Service has been carrying our mail since 1775. They were a federal agency up until 1971, when they were spun off as a private corporation, and are legally required to serve everyone equally regardless of location and at the same price. Being a government-run monopoly for almost 200 years kept the prices low and allowed them to set up a distribution network that dwarfs any of the current competition (except for e-mail). Slow, But Dependable has been the unofficial motto of the USPS for decades.

There is a little-known service offered by the USPS called General Delivery: If you know someone is going to be in a town, but don't know when or where they'll be staying, you can send a letter to them marked "General Delivery" and the Postmaster will hold it until they come in and ask for it.

Being able to sort and deliver a letter or small parcel across town is a job for a delivery man, but once you scale it up to the"territory" level it gets to be more complicated. Handing a kid a letter and a coin to have him deliver the letter to someone on the other side of town is simple. Once the letter has to change hands to get delivered, the problem of who pays whom arises. This is one of the few instances where having the government run a service can actually work, since the operation of a small-town Post Office can be subsidized by the income from the Post Offices in larger towns.

Mail was carried from town to town in locked boxes on the stage coaches as they ran their routes, with the postmaster in each town holding the keys to the locks. This provided a basic level of security for the mail and avoided having dedicated mail coaches. Since the volume of mail grows with population, cities were served by rail cars custom-built for the USPS and attached to the regular trains going between cities.

Setting up a delivery service after TEOTWAWKI would require knowledge of the people and places in your area, perhaps a form of transportation, and above all the trust of your customers. Networking with other delivery services would allow you to help serve a larger area, once you worked out how everyone involved split the fees. Those of us who served in the military before the invention of Skype know the feeling of hearing "Mail Call!" when physical mail was your only real link to family and friends far away.

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