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Mailboxes lose in the battle with Maine winter

March 14, 2005

Winters to early pioneers in Maine were times of privation and hardship. Heavy snows made roads impassable, food was usually scarce, and wild beasts lurked in the forests surrounding homes and villages. Settlers were preoccupied with just staying alive until spring came.

This mailbox was hidden in the snowbank
when the snowplow found it. It looks
like it survived the impact but the post it
sets on will have to be reset in the spring.
Photo by Allen Crabtree

Winter in Maine today is still a hardship but is no longer a life-or-death situation for those of us who have chosen to live here and face it every year. This winter especially has been tough with snow accumulations nearing 100 inches and snow banks higher than a man is tall. Each of us has to do battle with the blizzards and winter storms and the resulting traffic snarls and accidents. At home, it is a constant struggle to keep driveways and walkways clear, to keep a path clear for the oil delivery guy, to keep the pipes from freezing and the ice dams from forming on the roof.

We shouldn't forget, however, the other day-to-day struggle that pits winter snows against two unlikely allies - rural mail carriers for the US Post Office and road crews that drive state and town snowplows. In this battle that rages all winter the mailbox in front of our house is a pawn in the middle of the fight. Imagine standing in the middle of a battlefield with two opposing armies going at each other - no matter who wins, our mailbox is often the loser!

Mail carriers and snowplow drivers find themselves on the same side of the battle against winter. Their missions are different, but complement each other - deliver the mail and keep the roads open.

Delivering the Mail

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" may not be the official motto of the US Post Office, but it typifies the dedication of its rural mail carriers to deliver the mail under very tough conditions. This winter has been worse than usual, and the number of homes where mail could not be delivered is high. After the major storm on March 8, 2005 mail could not be delivered to 105 homes in Sebago alone.

The mailbox on the left
fared much better than its twin.
Photo by Allen Crabtree

Post Office Standard D041 requires that "customers must keep the approach to their mailboxes clear of obstructions to allow safe and convenient delivery by carriers without leaving their vehicles" That means that mailbox owners are required to keep their mailboxes shoveled out so that the mailman can drive up to it and leave mail. If the carrier can't get to the box because of snow, or if they can't find the box because it is buried in the snow bank, they are required to return the mail to the post office. People can pick their mail up at the post office until they shovel out their mailbox so that the carrier can find it again.

The Post Office is clear on this point - it is up to the owner of the mailbox to keep it clear and accessible, and the Post Office bears no responsibility for mail lost or delayed because the mail box was lost somewhere in the snow bank!

Keeping the Roads Clear

State and town road crews are obligated to keep roads in a safe and convenient condition for travelers with motor vehicles. They do so in winter by removing snow and ice from storms. At one point not too long ago winter roads were packed with large snow rollers drawn by horses or oxen, to allow horse drawn sleighs to travel. Cars and trucks were usually "put up" for the winter and mud season. Now, however, we expect roads to be kept plowed so we can drive our cars all winter long.

This mailbox has a place for it
shoveled into the snowbank
Photo by Allen Crabtree

As the snows continue to fall, the battle of the plow crews becomes one of clearing the roads and finding a place to put the snow. That means using the wing of the plow to push back the snow banks at the edge of the road. If this is not done, with a winter like the one we are now having, roadways would get narrower and narrower as more snow falls resulting in a dangerous driving situation.

In the process of plowing roads during storms when visibility is poor, and when "winging back" the banks, the plows often hit objects that are on the edge of the road. Driveway markers, newspaper boxes, and mailboxes are all in the public right-of-way and are the most common casualties. Sometimes they get hit because they are buried in the snow and not visible, and sometimes it is because the plow can't avoid them due to oncoming traffic, road conditions, or whatever. I know that we've all suspected that the plow drivers seek mailboxes out as some perverse game, but believe me, that is the last thing on their mind while trying to horse around a fully loaded truck on a slippery road in a blizzard. Winter is their enemy, not our mailboxes.

Mailboxes - caught in the middle!

There may not be a conspiracy, but mailboxes still get hit. I spoke with a friend here in town who remembers several years ago losing their mailbox. They had it affixed to a solid post in the ground and it was kept shoveled out. One day she went out to get the mail and it was gone! The post was still there, but the mailbox was nowhere to be seen! The next day her husband came across it lying atop a snow bank in the next town. Apparently the wing had picked up their mailbox and had carried it along down the road for a bit. Luckily there was no mail in it, but it goes to show what can happen.

My father was usually soft-spoken and easy going, but for a couple of winters during his personal "battle of the mailbox" he was anything but! We lived on the Maine-New Hampshire State line in on a curve on Route 153 in Taylor City, South Effingham. Snowplows from both states seemed to take delight in destroying the series of mailboxes that my father put out at the edge of the road. Although they denied it, my father was convinced otherwise.

Arlene Taylor, the local postmistress, had the post office in her home not too far down the road. "Don't get all upset about it Allen," she'd say. "You can walk over to the post office and I'll keep your mail here for you."

"That's not the point," my father would say. "I want to be able to have a mailbox in front of my house that doesn't get smashed every storm that comes along."

One summer he came up with the solution. He rigged up a mailbox on a movable arm made of galvanized pipe and set in cement at the edge of the road. "Now when the plow hits it, the mailbox will swing out the way and not get damaged," he said proudly. And you know, it worked like a charm. He never lost another mailbox, he became much better friends with the plow truck drivers, and as far as I know the mailbox is still there to this day, nearly 50 years after he built it.

Who is to blame?

This one was completely buried in the
snowbank, and has now been dug out,
revealing it has been knocked off its post.
Photo by Allen Crabtree

The Post Office requires the owner to keep their mailboxes shoveled out so that the mail carrier can get to them. If the box is missing or damaged, or not accessible, they will stop delivering mail to it and hold it at the post office. They are not responsible for any damage done to the box by snowplows.

According to Jim Katsiaficas, Senior Staff Attorney for the Maine Municipal Association, mailboxes are in the right of way by permission of the town and if damaged, there is no legal entitlement to replacement or payment. Towns are required to keep roads passable for traffic, and these public safety concerns outweigh any damage that might be done to mailboxes in the process.

No matter how much effort and expense we invest in putting out our mailbox at the side of the road, it is our responsibility to keep it clear and to fix it if it is damaged or destroyed so long as we want to have mail delivered to our home.

What are some solutions?

When we bought our farmhouse here several years ago I was impressed that a former owner had installed a swinging mailbox. The mailbox hangs by chains from a counterbalanced wooden arm that swings out of the way when hit by a plow. In a short tour of the town's roads this Sunday the mailboxes on movable arms seemed to have survived the storms in good shape. Many on fixed posts and poles did not, and often were either buried or damaged. There is an outfit called Mainely Metals in Gardiner, Maine, that sells a "MailSwing" swing away mailbox arm that they claim is snowplow and vandal resistant. Something like that, either purchased or home built like my father did, would be a good route to help "snowplowproof" your mailbox.

The mailbox is completely gone here,
and only the metal base remains.
Photo by Allen Crabtree

The Maine DOT recommends using a free-swinging suspended mailbox on an extended arm, mounted at least 42 inches above the ground to provide clearance for the plow wing. They also recommend that mailboxes be placed on the side of driveways away from approaching traffic to allow plow truck drivers to properly clear the roadway and get as close as possible to the mailbox to minimize the amount of shoveling needed to clear the mailbox for the mail carrier. Sometimes mailboxes can be located on the lee side of a telephone pole or tree and will have considerable protection from plows.

Town and state plow crews have instructions to avoid damage to mailboxes whenever possible. Although it is not required by law, I understand that some towns have chosen to budget to compensate owners of mailboxes that are damaged by town plows. Other towns have a policy whereby a town crew will clear snow away from mailboxes following big storms using a small plow or front loader. In a tight fiscal year, however, when most towns find their winter roads budget running out before winter does, these are niceties that the voters may not feel are justified. That is the choice for every town to make at budget time, along with all the other services that are offered to its taxpayers. It is also a great opportunity for civic groups and community organizations for service projects to keep the mailboxes of elderly folks in town clear from snow, and to repair and replace any of their mailboxes that are damaged over winter.

So, the bottom line is that no matter how hard the battle rages between winter and the mail carrier/snow plow coalition, your mailbox could be a casualty and you alone are responsible for dealing with it. There is nothing personal, honest!

This article was edited and published in the Bridgton News on March 17, 2005.