By: John Corwin
The above picture shows two covers that I entered in our stamp club’s “Cover Contest” in October, 2014. I wasn’t sure what category to enter them in, and so I decided to try “Oldest” and “Traveled the Furthest”. But my two covers fell well short in each category: my 1911 cover vs. the winner’s 1789 cover, and my 3239 miles vs. the winner’s 21 million miles. However, I think the covers have some interesting stories to tell, both philatelically and historically.
I found these covers while cleaning out my parents’ house in the summer of 2014. I call them “Twin Covers”, because they are so similar to each other. Here are the similarities:
- Same postmark dates: March 13 and 19, 1911
- Same return address: Hotel Tivoli, Ancon, Canal Zone
- Same addressee: Mrs. B.N. Moss, Des Moines, Iowa
- Same type of envelope
- Same handwriting
- Same 2¢ Washington stamp
- Same 2¢ Postage Due stamp
- Same cancellation in Canal Zone
- Same postage due cancellation in New York
I wondered why there were two nearly identical covers, and fortunately, there were letters inside that told most of the story.
One of the letters was sent by my great grandfather, Berkley Nathaniel Moss, from the Canal Zone to his wife in Des Moines, Iowa. At that time, he was a civil engineer in the construction business, and he made a two-week trip to Panama to observe the construction of the Panama Canal in March, 1911. The trip was sponsored by the Isthmian Canal Commission, which was the U.S. government agency set up to oversee the construction of the canal, and it allowed him to meet with a couple of men who appear on Canal Zone stamps. General George Washington Goethals was the chief engineer in charge of the construction project; Goethals appears on several Canal Zone stamps, Scott numbers 106, 117, C3, and C5, as well as United States Scott number 856. Moss also met with Colonel David du Bois Gaillard, who supervised the construction of the Culebra Cut, which is also known as the Gaillard Cut. Colonel Gaillard appears on one Canal Zone stamp, Scott number 109, and the Gaillard Cut appears on several stamps including two stamps (Canal Zone Scott numbers 107 and 122) showing pictures during the canal construction as Moss might have seen it on his train trip along the canal route.
The second letter was sent by his 17-year old son, Rex, who accompanied him on the trip. Rex wrote the letter to his mother at the same address in Des Moines. It is unclear why a teenager went along on this trip, but Rex later was in the construction industry.
Both envelopes were addressed by Berkley, and it is a bit puzzling why he sent them in separate envelopes although it is clear that he read his son’s letter before sealing it in the envelope. Also, it is unclear why postage due stamps were applied in New York, because the postage rate from the Canal Zone to the United States in 1911 was 2 cents for a one-ounce letter, and each of these letters weighs just less than one ounce.
The 2¢ Washington stamps are each perf 12 from a booklet pane. But it is not possible to determine which watermark they have. The watermark could be double-line USPS (watermark number 191) or single-line USPS (watermark number 190). So, they are either Scott number 332a or 375a, both of which were in use in 1911. However, based on the postmark date (March 13, 1911), I suspect that the stamps are both 332a, because the Scott catalogue lists the earliest documented use of 375a as April 27, 1911, which is several weeks later.
Similarly, the 2¢ postage due stamps have either watermark 190 or 191 and could be either J39 or J46. Because the J39 stamp was issued September 14, 1895 (many years before the cancellation date on these covers), I suspect that they are J46, which was issued on November 25, 1910 just a few months before these stamps were applied in New York.
Of contemporary historical interest, the Panama Canal is currently undergoing a major expansion project so that it can handle much, much larger ships. The new canal is scheduled to open next year (2016).
These covers are not in very good shape, but they show a bit of interesting family philatelic history. I just wish my great grandmother had been more careful when she opened these envelopes!