At the northern tip of Maine, beyond state roads and services, the tiny village in Aroostook County’s Big Twenty Township called Estcourt Station is a nod to the nearby Canadian rail line that runs coast to coast.
Records show that a century ago, when mills were thriving and farming and logging required more hands, the village had 100 or more residents. By 1960, it had half that. The 2010 census counted just four people.
Today, Estcourt Station has just one permanent resident: Steve Stahlman, a 67-year-old veteran.
The northernmost Mainer lives in an old house on Rue de la Frontière, a paved road that goes in and out of the United States before it reaches a little park beside Kelly Rapids. He has a few seasonal neighbors on the American side of the border, but is the only one who lives and votes in Maine.
Stahlman bought his house in 2017, relying on the twice-a-week mail service to allow him to pay his bills, correspond with the U.S. Veterans Administration and cast absentee ballots by mail.
Yet since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the the United States Postal Service has ceased bringing mail to or from Estcourt Station. As an alternative, it offered to give Stahlman a free post office box he could only reach by driving on 38 miles of private logging roads or making a wide circle through Canada on 60 miles of paved highway.
Not surprisingly, Stahlman is not thrilled with the new arrangement.
“You might as well give me a post office box in San Diego, for all the good it will do me,” Stahlman said Monday. “It may sound like I’m just bellyaching about a small thing, but it’s not.
“Imagine if you had to drive 38 miles down a logging road, weather permitting, just to get to Allagash, and then another 10 miles to the post office at St. Francis before it closes, or worse, another 30 miles to Fort Kent to get your mail?
“Every time I hear that USPS slogan ‘Delivering to every household in America’ I think to myself ‘all but one,’” Stahlman said.
Lesley Blethen, a manager at the U.S. Postal Service’s northern New England office, wrote in a 2020 letter that the post office, to save money, had decided to cease service to Estcourt Station and offer free post office boxes instead. Blethen suggested Stahlman try logging roads to shorten the long drive.
Stahlman has tried to convince politicians to lend him a hand in restoring mail service, but so far he has had no luck. He has not given up yet.
A DOT ON THE MAP
After his father died in 2015, when Stahlman lived in Alabama, with its stifling heat, he decided he would like to buy something in New Brunswick, where summers would be kinder. But problematic Canadian laws convinced him to look at Maine.
Growing up “an Army brat,” Stahlman said he spent his early years on Boston’s North Shore, before moving to Kentucky as a teenager. He said he has loved northern New England since attending a Boy Scout camp in New Hampshire as a child, so the idea of going to Maine seemed solid.
Checking an online real estate site, Stahlman said, “I saw a red dot right there at the top of the state” and bought a house sight unseen from a retired — and legendary — game warden named Philip Dumond.
Stahlman initially planned to use it as a seasonal place, like so many others who view Maine as a sweet summertime escape, but when he got there to have a look around, Stahlman fell in love. It took him less than two weeks to decide he would live there permanently.
“Behind me,” he said, “there are 38 miles of Maine wilderness.”
The little neighborhood in Maine where he lives has “four or five houses” in about a square mile. It makes for a unique, pretty spot, an area where Canadians from the nearby town of several thousand people come frequently to fish or hang out by the St. Francis River and woods.
If it were not for the international border, with its peculiar rules, it would look like Stahlman’s road was simply part of the Quebec town of Pohénégamook, which picks up his trash and recycling, and provides municipal water, as if he was an honest-to-goodness Canadian. He gets his electricity from Hydro-Québec and the telephone area code for Estcourt Station is from Canada.
Stahlman said he must be careful about crossing the border without checking in with border agents. If he messed up, it could bring a $5,000 fine from his own country. The Canadian agents, he said, are “super friendly” and pose no problem.
Still, Stahlman is so gung-ho about the community that he bought Maine and U.S. flags to fly from the American side of a pedestrian footbridge that crosses the border.
“As isolated as it is,” he said, Estcourt Station is a wonderful, beautiful place.
Estcourt Station does not have much. But, oddly, it does have its own zip code — 04741.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
When COVID-19 slammed the world beginning in the late winter of 2020, restrictions fell like rain from bureaucrats everywhere who were trying to contain the spread of the potentially deadly virus.
One of the new rules imposed basically shut down the border between the United States and Canada, creating an obvious problem for Estcourt Station since there was not any way to get to it without crossing the border.
Stahlman could not even drive down his own street without passing a concrete post on the curbside marking an invisible line that sliced across the pavement and right through some houses.
“I was forced to relocate temporarily away from my home,” Stahlman said.
Fortunately, he said, he has retired and can go where he likes, so it was not that big a hardship.
Stahlman said he kept checking on his house after mud season, but could not move back until the border reopened about a year ago.
In the meantime, the post office did a survey of mail recipients in Estcourt Station to determine if anyone would care if it dropped the twice-a-week delivery to a cluster of nine mailboxes behind the Canadian customs building.
Since nobody could reasonably stay in Estcourt Station given the travel restrictions at the time, the post office heard no complaints about the idea during its 30-day comment period. Stahlman never knew it happened, until it was too late.
Hearing nothing, the U.S. Postal Service declared in September 2020 it would no longer send someone out to drive from Fort Kent to the town twice weekly. Mail service essentially ended for the community.
ESTCOURT ALWAYS A PROBLEM
For a tiny place, Estcourt Station has long been a source of headaches for everyone from farmers to diplomats.
In 1938, the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa took up discussion of a petition from the Union of Catholic Farmers in Estcourt Station, begging lawmakers to annex their town and make it part of Quebec.
At the time, the village had 100 residents, most of them French Canadians who had wound up on the United States side of the border by happenstance.
Isolated by 50 miles of forest, the farmers said in their petition they had no roads or means of communication with the rest of the United States and, as a result, dealt exclusively with Canada. They were especially irked at having to pay customs duties to buy and sell anything, since Canadians were their only potential buyers and merchants.
Parliament tossed aside the petition without serious consideration. After all, Estcourt Station’s woes were not its problem. Besides, Maine’s governor weighed in to insist the state would not sacrifice a sliver of its territory.
Later in 1938, American customs agents seized five horses, three cows and a sheep that had wandered from a side of a field in Canada across the meadow to U.S. territory. They did not have permission. U.S. agents sold the animals back to their owners for a total of $181.
Half a century ago, the town landed in hot water when a local established an outdoor theater that showed X-rated movies that drew crowds from Canada. Nobody could do much to stop it because government barely existed on the local level, although a U.S. Customs office there kept a sign on its wall reminding people anything smuggled in would have to be smuggled out again to reach anyone beyond Estcourt Station.
But the biggest problem arose in 2002, after the United States beefed up border security following terrorist attacks, when a Pohénégamook resident, Michel Jalbert, who had long bought gasoline from a station in Estcourt Station, like many Canadians in the area, was stopped by two U.S. Border Patrol officers just shy of the border.
They found a gun used for partridge hunting in the truck and charged Jalbert with crossing the border illegally and held him behind bars for a month. He ultimately pleaded guilty and was released for time served.
It was such a well-publicized incident, with Canadians up in arms, that the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell, had to address what he called an “unfortunate incident” and help arrange for the deal to bring it to an end.
PLEADING FOR HELP
Stahlman said he is not happy with the U.S. Postal Service because he thinks its universal service obligation is not met by offering him a post office box so far from his house.
He said he spoke with post office officials, but got nowhere with them. He provided emails that show he tried.
Stahlman said he also reached out to U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s office because his experience working in the government over the years taught him bureaucrats often pay attention when they think a congressman is watching.
Golden’s office looked into it, emails indicate, and sought without success a way for Stahlman to receive his mail.
Frustrated, Stahlman said he wrote a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News in October 2020, detailing his experience with the post office and Golden. Before its publication, he said, Golden’s office asked him to rescind the letter while it investigated the issue further.
So Stahlman complied. But, he said, nothing more occurred.
From Stahlman’s perspective, “they just blew me off.”
But Golden’s office did talk with postal officials, emails show. It just did not find a solution that worked for his frustrated constituent.
Nick Zeller, a spokesman for Golden, said: “As we do with all constituent requests, the congressman’s office strongly advocated on Mr. Stahlman’s behalf to the relevant federal agencies and communicated with him throughout the process. We have worked to find a solution and taken every action available to us, and we are disappointed in the response from the U.S. Postal Service.”
Ryan Cunius, a government relations representative for the U.S. Postal Service, wrote to Golden last October.
“While I recognize that Mr. Stahlman may be dissatisfied with this response,” Cunius wrote, “it accurately reflects the Postal Service’s policy and position in this matter.”
In short, the post office did not budge.
NOT GIVING UP
Stahlman said his driver’s license expires in March 2023 and he has no idea how he will replace it.
Without mail service, he said, how is he supposed to receive a new license? Or cast a mail-in ballot for the Nov. 8 general election?
He said Americans are entitled to mail delivery, even if they do not live in a major city. Letters do not have to be brought to every door, he said, but a common mail drop should not require someone drive three or four hours to get there and back.
Mail sent to Stahlman these days is returned as undeliverable.
Stahlman hired a lawyer who filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Postal Service in April.
The complaint said the decision to cease delivery to Estcourt Station violated a federal law that says postal officials “shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining. No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be insured to residents of both urban and rural communities.”
The complaint also said forcing Stahlman to travel between his house and either St. Francis or Fort Kent to get his mail would mean he would have to spend between 90 minutes and two hours on the road each way, if the weather is reasonable. That does not meet the standards imposed by Congress, said lawyer Jessica Winters of Kentucky.
Stahlman said he has a message for the officials who cut off his mail: “I exist, damn it.”