Star Route: The Story Behind the Name of a West Marin farm

Illustration of the Star Route trials
Illustration of the Star Route trials

There’s a West Marin farm by that name and the phrase is in many historical texts, but what exactly is a star route? It’s not astrological. Star routes were postal routes serviced by private contractors in new territories, primarily in the West and Southwest.

Steamboats and railroads moved most of the United States mail in the mid-1800s, but in 1845 the government began offering private carriers lucrative contracts to deliver by horse, wagon or stagecoach in more isolated areas. These contracts were called “celerity, certainty and security” bids, abbreviated by postal clerks to three asterisks (***); hence the celestial nickname.

By 1880 the U.S. had nearly 10,000 star routes, costing the government nearly $6 million a year, and the potential profits created a situation ripe for bribery and fraud, by contractors, postal officials and politicians alike. Private organizations in the West would make a low bid for a contract, but some postal officials presenting these bids to Congress asked for higher payments, benefiting certain contractors and themselves. The scams were investigated and officially shut down in 1882, resulting in 25 indictments, but the fallout from the Star Route Scandal shook the nation and depleted federal coffers; the U.S. Post Office lost an estimated $4 million in all.

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