A Brief Exploration of the History of Post Offices of Rural Washington

Former PO  in St. Andrews, WA (photo by Panoramio user Chris Metz)
The U.S. Postal Service is in crisis right now. The most frequent cost-cutting proposal is to close thousands of rural post offices. The proposal has led to a spate of stories from little towns across America who protest that in many cases the Post Office is the only thing keeping the town alive.

You can explore the rise and fall of rural post offices in the Northwest online. Maps of postal routes were common. For example, compare this 1897 map (at the Washington State Library) and this 1905 map (at Washington State University). Let's zoom in on a section of rural eastern Washington:

This 1897 map show the prevalence of POs in some of tiny hamlets of the Columbia Plateau.
Just 8 years later in 1905 some of the locations have changed.
A handful of 1897 post offices such as Buckingham and Ophir have disappeared by 1905, but many additional POs (Mansfield, Withrow, Mold) have been created as the countryside filled in. The Great Northern Railroad reached Douglas County in 1893, and the population boomed from 3,161 individuals in 1890 to 4,926 in 1900 and 9,227 by 1910. The very existence of such detailed maps of postal routes for this period shows how important the institution was thought to be for rural development. Oddly enough, I cannot find equivalent maps for the late-20th century.

By the mid-20th century the population of places like Withrow and Mansfield began to decline, and for the most part has declined ever since. Only a handful are open today--and soon there will be even fewer.