Photo of Dorsey the Mail Dog, who carried U.S. mail from Calico, to the Bismarck mines in the 1880s. From the collection of the Mojave River Valley Museum. (Courtesy photo)
By Mark Landis
San Bernardino County Sun
It’s not known how a stray border collie named Dorsey arrived in the Calico Mining District in the early 1880s, but this dedicated mail-carrying canine became one of the region’s best-known and beloved frontier characters. Dorsey’s story is a fine tale on its own, but as time passed, a new collection of related storylines began to surpass the legend itself.
The town of Calico sprang up in the mineral-rich hills northeast of Barstow in 1881, and the raucous mining camp became California’s most famous silver bonanza. New mining camps quickly sprouted up all across the nearby hills and canyons, and by 1885, the district was brimming with thousands of miners hoping to strike it rich.
In May 1882, a post office was established at Calico, and the town was officially “on the map.” Mail was delivered regularly to Calico by stagecoach, but getting the mail to the miners in the outlying camps was a slow and laborious task.
The miner’s tales that came from Calico were often just as colorful as the multihued hills that inspired the town’s name, but Dorsey’s story is supported by numerous accounts in newspapers and published works from the period.
The earliest story on the mail-carrying dog was found in the Calico Print newspaper from May 10, 1885. The Print references “Jack the Mail Dog” in its 1885 article, and by 1886, other newspaper accounts referred to the mail dog as Dorsey.
The scruffy stray was adopted by Calico’s postmaster, Everett E. Stacy, sometime around 1885. Dorsey was a typical black-and-white border collie with a shaggy coat, and bright eyes. He was friendly to most and dedicated to his work, but before his postal career, he was known as a loafer whose primary motivation was the food and scraps he could beg from the locals.
Dorsey’s initiation into the postal service occurred in 1885, when Stacy wanted to send his brother Alwin a message at the Bismarck Mine camp, a mile and a half to the northeast. Not wanting to make the rugged trip himself, Stacy wrote a note to Alwin, tied it to Dorsey’s neck, and sent him scampering off toward Bismarck.
The dog returned the next day, looking none the worse for wear, with Alwin’s reply note tied around his neck. Stacy realized he may have found an unorthodox but potentially practical way to get mail to Bismarck for distribution to the local miners. After a few more successful test runs between the two camps, the postmaster was convinced the mail could be delivered by the canine courier.
A special canine mailbag was fashioned for Dorsey that could be strapped onto his back and fastened with two buckles. He was also equipped with a set of homemade leather booties to protect his feet from the blistering sand and rocks on the pathway between the two camps.
Dorsey became familiar with his routine, and was sent off to Bismarck with the mail each day, returning with Bismarck’s outgoing mail the following morning. Most accounts of Dorsey’s overnight stays in Bismarck tell of the appreciative miners spoiling him with snacks and affection.
Word of the unique canine mail delivery service spread quickly, and newspapers all across the country began running their version of the tale. Dorsey soon became a celebrity, and his photos were posted nationally in newspapers and on the walls of mining shacks and businesses all across the district.
In January 1886, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a full article on Dorsey and concluded the story with: “He is immensely popular with the miners, whose mail he carries so faithfully, and every evening at Bismarck, the miners order an extra beefsteak for the canine carrier.”
The unique canine mail service was reliable and cost efficient, but it only lasted about a year. In February 1886, Stacy gave Dorsey to the wealthy Bismarck Mine owner, W.W. Stow, of San Francisco. Dorsey lived out his retirement years in comfort at the Stow mansion in San Francisco.
Almost 90 years later, Dorsey was memorialized in song by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, in their 1972 double album “The Ballad of Calico.” It was the group’s eighth studio release and featured songs about the characters who lived in Calico during the frontier days. “Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog” was cut four on side two of the album.
In March 1974, Dorsey’s story hit the big time on the small screen, when it was turned into an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” called “Go West, Young Dog.” Mylas Hinshaw Productions filmed the outdoor sequences on the streets and in the canyons of Calico, and the company rented an old grocery store building in Lenwood to film the interior shots.
Several local residents from Barstow and Yermo were used as cast members. In this version of the Dorsey story, the canine mail carrier tangles with a cougar, foils a train robbery and helps apprehend a pair of claim-jumping desperadoes. The episode aired Feb. 20, 1977, and was narrated by Roger Miller.
In 2007, children’s author Susan Lendroth came across the story of Dorsey while doing research on Calico. Lendroth was intrigued by the story, and she saw the potential to adapt Dorsey’s character for a children’s picture book. “Calico Dorsey, Mail Dog of the Mining Camps” was published in 2010 with beautiful illustrations by Adam Gustavson that bring the story to life.
“I’ve been fascinated with Calico since I was a child going to the ghost town at Knott’s Berry Farm,” said Lendroth. “I thought Dorsey’s story could bring something warm into the lives of children.”
It’s fascinating that Stacy’s unique and brief experiment in mail delivery by a plucky little border collie could grow to such magnitude in frontier folklore. Maybe it’s time for a Pixar version of “Dorsey, the Mail Carrying Dog”?