It’s mid-morning and the shadows of thick, green trees beginning to be thinned by the cooler Autumn weather ripple across the blue-grey waters of the Magnolia River. The smell of pine is in the air and an occasional fish splashes through the glassy surface of the water.
The silence is interrupted by the chugging of a small motorboat, bringing the mail to the people who live along the riverbank in Magnolia Springs, about halfway between Mobile and Pensacola.
Magnolia Springs is a little-known town along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. The community is hidden away amongst thousands of acres of forest, creeks and river country. So of all things you might expect to see — emerging from the morning mist here— a lone man, delivering mail by boat, probably isn’t one of them.
Mark Lipscomb’s job is just that. His daily routine entails sorting through the mail of a few hundred town residents of this historic mill town, jumping in his boat and going dock by dock, delivering Uncle Sam’s mail to residents whose only access to the outside world is more often than not, by water.
The water mail route was started 100 years ago by the Magnolia Springs postmaster and an Episcopal bishop because the muddy clay roads often made it impossible for people to get to the post office even on horseback. Even with improved access a century later, the water route is more feasible.
This water mail route is the only one in the country that operates year round. There are some summer routes on other lakes or rivers, but nowhere else does mail arrive by water 12 months of the year. Nearly two hundred mailboxes hang out over docks on the river waiting for their daily supply of bills, letters and junk mail.
Since 1915, less than a dozen postmen have served the route. The contract to carry the mail is awarded to the lowest bidder and renewed unless the carrier wants to increase his price or give up the job.
Lipscomb, the current mailman, is fairly new to the South, having moved from California to Magnolia Springs to avoid the stresses of big city life. He began the job nearly a decade ago in 2006 after following a host of other career paths, including as a commercial fisherman. He previously served in the U.S. Army.
“I was born and raised in Los Angeles and once I did my tour of duty I left California and came here,” says Lipscomb. When he decided to move to Magnolia Springs, he says he took the job in part because he was inspired by his father, who retired as a postal courier in Los Angeles.
Lipscomb explained that he is not an employee of the United States Postal Service but contracts his job with the government. He gets paid a contract rate but does not get other government benefits such as paid vacations, retirement benefits or sick pay. The rate, he says, includes his pay, fuel and oil for his boat.
As with any water travel, weird occurrences keep Lipscomb on his toes. When he begins his daily rounds delivering mail, he worries more about being attacked by alligators and snakes than neighborhood dogs. He says he’s seen deer swimming across the river, comes upon alligators on a daily basis and even has fish that jump into his boat, unknowingly getting mixed in with the letters and packages he’s delivering.
But residents don’t mind a few delays. “The people on the route enjoy it and they do what they can to keep it going,” says Lipscomb. “They like it because it’s unique. They’re proud to be part of the nation’s only water mail route.”
Water delivery does present problems to Lipscomb, the route’s only full-time courier. In the low tides of winter, he has difficulty reaching up to the boxes. With summer high tides, he may not be able to navigate under the bridges. He says that rain or shine, he’ll always be out on the river making his customers happy.
Lipscomb begins his day at about 8:30 a.m. every morning at the Magnolia Springs Post Office to gather and sort his mail, and then he leaves to launch his boat and begin his route.
He then carries his mail to his truck and drives across the town to a remote landing where his skiff is docked. Within a few minutes, he has dropped his mail in the boat, fired up his outboard motor and begins his journey for the day.
“It might be kind of boring to some people, but I’ve gotten used to it,” says Lipscomb. “It’s pretty safe and there’s not often any big surprises with this job. I’ll talk to my customers every now and then and they’ll let me know what’s going on in town.”
The river route is delightful on this late October day, but can be brutal during the scorching heat of summer or bitter cold of winter while he’s delivering mail out in the elements.
“On a regular route I’d have air conditioning in the summer and in the rain or cold I’d have a heater,” Lipscomb says. “Instead, I get to see the fish jumping, the flowers blooming and get to enjoy the scenery. You appreciate things more when you’re out here.”