Need for Speed

The 30: The Young and the Rising

Love Letters

The story of an Oregon ghost town and the army of brides that keeps it alive

Six days a week, Geri Canzler packs her lunch and commutes on winding roads through thick Oregon forest. When it’s nice out, she can walk the route, but on this late March day Canzler is tired and the rain hasn’t stopped. So she drives her white SUV to her workplace, the second-smallest free-standing post office in the United States.1 She estimates the wooden shack to be no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet, though there is also that 3-by-4 storage shed off the back if you’re going to get technical about it.

Canzler is the postmaster of a once-thriving lumber town that has been shaved down to just a few splinters. Gone are all the old mills that once turned mighty fir trees into neat planks, and that later manufactured decorative window sashes for Midwestern homes and little boxes for two-pound blocks of Kraft cheese. Gone is the modest employee lodging that dotted the steep forested hills, and the mill owner’s house that even featured a wooden swimming pool. Gone, as recently as 2011, when the demolition crews were called in once more, is the community church. The one new thing that this enclave has gained in the past few years is its own page on ghosttowns.com.

When Canzler pulls in, the only other vehicle in the parking lot is one manufactured by John Deere. Near the door to the entrance is an honor-system leave-a-book, take-a-book lending library, about half the size of a phone booth and stocked with the usual syndicated romance novels and Sue Grafton fare. Visible, too, is a set of train tracks, and behind the train tracks is Interstate 84, and beyond Interstate 84 is the Columbia River, which separates Oregon from Washington and was described by Lewis and Clark back in the day as “gut Swelling water, boiling & whorling in every direction.” A dam was built in the ’30s, making it all a lot calmer now. In the summer, Canzler says, it’s a windsurfer’s paradise.

All that really remains of the former boomtown, though, are three things: an old bed-and-breakfast that once served up hot meals to transient mill workers; a cemetery; and a post office. The first, owned for 119 years by the same family, is now up for sale. The second was unintentionally discovered by Canzler years ago beneath the big blackberry brambles and 6-foot-tall ivy vines in her side yard.

And the third thing, the little post office, has been kept barely alive — in an era of Postal Service downsizing — thanks almost entirely to an annual army of finicky brides who covet its picture-perfect postmark for their wedding invitations. Bridal Veil, Oregon, 97010, is the name of the town, and Canzler is one of its only employees. She may well wind up being its last.

It’s well documented that weddings make you crazy, though I have come to believe they just expose you as such. The whole planning process often feels like a reverse Rorschach test in which each snap decision bleeds into an ominous pattern revealing exactly who you’ve been all along.

Ordinarily simple acts like setting a table involve 700-page binders that ought to be titled “The Narcissism of Small Differences in Gold Piping.” To many an idealistic couple, the hard truths of the peony economy offer a glimpse into what lies ahead in the realms of home ownership or their children’s education. Grifty cottage industries spring up around such things as Instagram hashtags. It’s all very bizarre. I’d make fun, except that over the last year, planning my own wedding, I have been confronted with some silly fixations of my own.

I couldn’t care less about cake or a complicated honeymoon, but I daydream about calligraphy. This is nothing new. As a kid, I made collages and asked Santa for monogrammed stationery. I have fond, vivid memories of messing around with the ink pads and hole punches in my grandfather’s desk. Even as a nominal grown-up I’ve yet to pass a Kate’s Paperie without ducking inside for a dreamy half hour and emerging with a set of Audubon bookmarks on thick, pleasing stock. Sometimes I put thought into which stamp I should use when mailing in a utility bill. I whiff rubber cement and caress Le Pen markers and believe all of this to be genetic and wholly unfixable, like how some people swear cilantro tastes just like soap.

Needless to say, I’m weird about my wedding invitations, which is how I found out about Geri Canzler and the Bridal Veil post office. And I’m not alone. Each year between March and August, some 150,000 envelopes containing save-the-dates or request-the-honour-of-your-presences are specifically, and even militantly, directed to this particular spot. In a tiny room filled with boxes of envelopes that during high season approach hoarder height, Canzler personally processes every piece of wedding mail, one by one, marking each with a custom postmark and cancellation she designed to honor a place she has long fought to protect.

Visualize a standard envelope: You supply the postage stamp and the address, and once it’s mailed the post office provides the postmark (historically a circle with your town’s name and zip code) and the cancellation (best described as “those squiggly lines”).

They each serve their duty. A stamp on a letter is a square inch, give or take, of personal expression. It’s a little work of art and a historical relic rolled into one, a symbol of both form and function, of logistics and love. In the eyes of the U.S. Postal Service, a stamp is proof of payment for services rendered, and it must be voided, or “canceled,” immediately upon use. The squiggly lines deface the stamp and perform the same job as the ticket taker at the movies who rips off your stub.

“Every post office had its own cancellation, had its own postmark,” Canzler explains. “That was before they had the huge distribution centers that they have now. Now everybody dumps their mail into big trays, uncanceled, so it all goes through the machine, a hundred thousand letters an hour.”

This makes complete sense, obviously; in our digital age the embattled post office needs to be efficient and low-cost.2

But while those machines are perfect for everyday mail, they can cause problems ranging from the merely aesthetic — the automated cancellations look like they’ve been sprung from a dot matrix printer — to the legitimately disruptive. When I sent out engagement party invitations last fall, the colorful ’70s stamps I spent hours hand-glueing (lay off me; I warned you) did not pair well with the high-speed machines. The shipment was decimated en route, money was wasted, understandings were missed, and I started Googling to see if I could buy some sort of postmark or cancellation stamp of my own. I could not, but I did find out about Bridal Veil.

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“We put a lot of heart and soul into our wedding invitations,” Dorothy Nelson, who works in the fashion industry and kept a blog, Luv the Bride, chronicling the process of planning her North Carolina nuptials, told me in an email.

Her father-in-law contributed a watercolor design incorporating elements that would appear in the wedding — wisteria and birdcages — and Nelson painstakingly comparison-shopped to find the finest paper available inside her budget. She affixed each envelope with a wax seal depicting a pinecone, in homage to her wedding venue, the golf paradise Pinehurst. After all this thankless work, there was one last crucial step.

“As a bride who appreciates wedding traditions and etiquette,” she said, “I had read about hand-canceling invitations as a way to be more personable, as well as to help keep the envelopes pristine during the mailing process.”

Showing up at one’s local post office can be a crapshoot when it comes to requesting hand cancellation; while USPS employees are technically supposed to honor such requests, there are many variables at play, like the size of the operation, the length of the lines, the number of envelopes, and the general attitude of the person you happen to approach. Message board postings on the subject report responses ranging from snorts of derisive laughter to enthusiastic offerings to let the bride sit at the counter with the stamp and process everything herself.

Whatever precisely artisanal piece of wedding flair you’re going for — hand-crocheted doilies on the center of every table; loopy-lettered chalkboards announcing the coordinates of the loo — it’s available for a few easy clicks on Etsy.3 But getting a guarantee that your pricey invitations will arrive at their destinations unmolested? I haven’t yet found a vendor on WeddingWire for that. 

The postal service is well aware that there are nuts like us who get a kick out of this sort of thing. Around Christmas and Valentine’s Day, it often releases lists of towns with “seasonal” names — Wiseman, Arkansas; Snowflake, Arizona; and Holly, Colorado for the former; Sugar City, Idaho; Darling, Mississippi; and Kissimmee, Florida for the latter — and encourages customers to send their correspondence through those locations. Loveville, Maryland, has a special Cupid postmark for the relevant holidays, while customers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, were distraught two years back when a special Christmas postmark featuring a camel was unexpectedly unavailable.

“I had read about a number of cities with ‘wedding-esque’ names including Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Bridal Veil, Oregon,” Nelson said, “but ultimately decided on the Bridal Veil USPS, as I appreciated its history.”

Depending on how hard it’s raining, Bridal Veil is a roughly 30-minute drive from downtown Portland, which surprised me. Reading about the place as a forgotten, empty, it-all-falls-down husk of a bygone era had made it seem buried away somewhere deep within the state’s central expanse, and not a quick jaunt between city middle and Mount Hood.

The town got its name, the story goes, back in the mid–19th century, when a woman aboard a Columbia River steamship noticed one of the many waterfalls that enliven the cliffs on the Oregon side of the river. This particular feature cascaded and pooled in a way that made it look like a veil flowing over the poufs of a bustled wedding gown — the style of the day — and the description endured. Little did anyone know at the time that the name would help the town to endure, too.

“We probably would have been closed 20 years ago” if it weren’t for the brides, Canzler says, looking over her glasses while her rat terrier Buster stands on a mailroom counter, projecting Napoleonic run-of-the-place.

Canzler slides a guestbook over to me. It covers only the last year or so, but it contains blurbs from spots as far-ranging as London, Honolulu, and, her personal favorite, Taiwan. On one page, someone has written: “Thank you for taking such good care of us. It is such a relief to cross this off the list with a sense of calm.” The signature identifies the author as a mother of the bride.

“Very interesting to visit this place,” says a note from a Dutch visitor. “Very important to keep the post office current.” Next to the entry is a well-done doodle of the Netherlands.

If you want to know about Bridal Veil’s past, Canzler says, the person to talk to is Steve Lehl, a former garbage collector who lives with his wife, Judy, up on a sprawling expanse of land with panoramic views of the Columbia River. Growing up not far away, the pair were always familiar with the scenic region to their east, which showcased numerous waterfalls, featured a big domed structure called Vista House that loomed over a winding highway, and lured not just tourists but also randy teens to its wooded streets.

“Everybody’s first date is to the Vista House,” Judy says. “You get your driver’s license, the first thing you do is drive out the scenic highway. You know, it’s Lovers’ Lane out here.”

“Plenty of places to park, yeah,” Steve agrees.

“You get a new car, you gotta drive along the scenic highway!” Judy repeats. “You see a lot of brand-new cars.”

“The highway’s gonna be a hundred years old here in a couple years,” says Steve, almost to himself.

When they moved here, almost 40 years ago, they were the kids in town, the young hippies. They were both coming from Portland, where they’d been living in their parents’ respective basements. Having saved up some money, they went in — along with an old roommate of Steve’s — on a house up on a hill. The roommate has since left, but it’s where Steve and Judy, who now have matching long, graying hair, his tied back in a ponytail and hers loose, still live.

Steve is one of the town’s self-appointed historians, having been interested in its backstory ever since he found some old artifacts while collecting trash. “When I was a garbageman, I was like a crow,” he tells me as I look around a room neatly filled with knickknacks he’d snagged from the refuse pile over the years. “I’d see something shiny, and I’d bring it home.” Other than the post office, the Lehls’ house is the closest thing Bridal Veil has to a museum. The walls are a tidy mosaic of old framed photographs capturing what used to exist in these parts: log flumes, planing mills, a schoolhouse, steam locomotives, fir trees the size of redwoods being manually sliced apart by floppy band saws the length of several men.

Along with his friend Chuck Rollins, Steve Lehl travels to local Elks clubs and preservation societies to give a slide show presentation he has painstakingly compiled over the years. “Hey, we’ll do it to any group,” he says, as his Rhodesian ridgeback snoozes in an easy chair nearby. “You’re the smallest.”

Clicking through the photos on his computer, he runs through the short, volatile history of the town, which was officially established in 1886 and stood through two catastrophic fires, a diphtheria epidemic, the gradual depletion of an entire mountainside of enormous trees, numerous landslides, economic hardship, and two World Wars. One of the more upsetting pieces of Bridal Veil history includes the various firsthand reports that as World War II loomed, the Japanese gardeners employed by the Kraft family were sent off to internment camps.4 One of the cooler legends is that Clark Gable, who did a stint as a lumberjack before hitting it big onscreen, worked at the company mill.

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Bridal Veil (and the adjacent, and mostly connected, mill town of Palmer) was the site of numerous industry advances in its day. It was home not only to the men who worked there, but also to their families. It saw the rise and fall of a lumber operation so healthy it supported an entire company town, pioneered several innovations, and characterized what was, for a time, the Pacific Northwest’s most lucrative industry. Very close to zero of any of it remains.

By 1960, the heady days of the region were mostly over: It was hard to maintain profit margins once the wood had been used up. In 1991, an organization called the Trust for Public Land bought up the bulk of Bridal Veil — the New York Times reported that the town had nine residents at the time — and began the slow dismantling of the historic mill structures.5

One of the few parcels that neither the Trust for Public Land nor the U.S. Forest Service wanted anything to do with was the cemetery on Canzler’s property. It’s morbid, but it’s a silver lining all the same, one small piece of Bridal Veil that has been allowed to remain. The post office, too, was given a reprieve.

Laurel McDonald lived in town until she was 12 and now runs the Bridal Veil Lodge, a small bed-and-breakfast that was built by her great-grandfather Virgil in 1895. Her guests are usually people in town to see the waterfalls.6 But she put it on the market this spring; there was just no one in her family who could take on the commitment of running the business.

“It’s the end of the line,” she tells me as we stand inside the lovely building, with its smooth knotty-pine walls and the same original, hand-built furniture that has been around for almost as long as the house. The sleeves of her zip-up sweatshirt are covered in paint as she extends her hands in the shape of an upside-down pyramid. “Families are supposed to get bigger. Both of the grandparents had a family of nine kids. And now it’s just come down to this.”

Bridal Veil in general isn’t too different, although it was always a place that was in danger of consuming itself. It’s hard, looking at the lush landscape of today, to reconcile it with the pictures Steve cycles through of treeless, naked land a century ago. But even now, as it was then, it’s a difficult place to make your home. Canzler is the kind of woman well suited to living if not off the grid, then on the very edge of it.

“I’m pretty hearty,” she says. “I was raised on a farm without a potty — ya know, you go outside.” Even so, one of the first ice storms she experienced in Bridal Veil, where she relocated after meeting her born-and-raised-here husband,7 nearly broke her. “I deserted my husband, I flew to Reno, and I didn’t come back for seven days,” she says. “We didn’t have any power, we didn’t have any water — we had nothing for nine days and nights.”

The region is drop-dead gorgeous year round, with its canyons and river valleys and dramatic cloud formations. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived and probably ever will,” Canzler says, adding that whenever she goes on vacation, she can’t wait to get back home.

But in the spring, the steep and soggy earth loosens and crumbles. (The Lehls lost half of their yard to a landslide years back.) In the summer, the wooded landscape burns. In the winter, you go so crazy you’re moved to flee to Reno. I do suspect that autumn is pretty perfect, because that season always is. Canzler says there was someone in town who had a little Bobcat and would go around plowing people’s streets and driveways when things got really bad, but they moved to North Carolina. That was a shame.

Canzler hates the “crap trees,” like cottonwoods, that now dominate a landscape denuded by logging not really that long ago. They are skinny and everywhere and radioactively green with moss; 30 years ago, she says, none of them was here. They grow fast, but they also won’t last. The firs and the hemlocks and the cedars will eventually take over again. The Forest Service will probably harvest them when they do.

“New York always has the biggest weddings,” Canzler says. “I would say probably 10 batches from New York, they were all at least 400 per batch. Unbelievable, the size of their weddings.” She shows me a photo of what things look like in the early summer, her busiest time of year, when corrugated postal boxes filled with neat stacks of envelopes make it difficult to even walk to her desk. “When the sun comes, the brides come!” she says, with a singsong cadence that makes it sound like a mantra.

From March to August, Canzler processes about 150,000 pieces of wedding-related mail, for about half of which she also sells the postage. That amounts to roughly $40,000 in stamp sales, she says. In general, wedding-related work (and the odd Valentine) accounts for about 80 percent of the Bridal Veil post office’s income. The other 20 percent is a patchwork of small revenue streams. The gift shop at nearby Multnomah Falls, for example, does a brisk business on eBay, and Canzler handles the mailings for that. She does the same for the Oregon Stamp Society.

We are briefly interrupted by a rare visitor: a diminutive nun, one of several who live in a Franciscan convent in town, comes in and checks her P.O. box.

Sometimes the envelopes arrive in kempt packages, and other times they burst through the door in the arms of flushed, harried brides. Once, the envelopes were oddly triangle-shaped, and it was a challenge for Canzler to determine exactly where and how to place the postmarks. There are ivory envelopes with swooping calligraphy and pink ones addressed in a prim hand. One thing they have in common is that, in the minds of the people sending them out, they’re the most important documents to wend their way through the U.S. Postal Service since their first paycheck. There are two custom Bridal Veil cancellations they can choose from: one with interlocking hearts, and one with a pair of doves. If they don’t care, Canzler will decide what she thinks looks best.

When it’s really busy — in the summer, five or six brides can sometimes show up at a time — she sets up a table and chairs out in the parking lot. All she asks is that the brides who send their letters this way purchase the postage stamps from Bridal Veil.

“Oh, it’s so exciting!” Judy Lehl says, clapping, when I ask if she has ever encountered the brides. “We wish them luck, we congratulate them, we say to them, It’s so exciiiiiiiiting!

“Buy your stamps here, now,” Steve adds, imitating himself. “That’s the big push.”

“At Costco they wanna sell you stamps every once in a while,” says Judy. “OHHH NO. If my postmistress knew I bought stamps at Costco, I’d be in trouble!”

Between the rain and the woods and the happy guest ledger and the cabin’s cramped vestibule and its proprietor — “They gave me a postage machine,” Canzler says at one point, “but to tell you the truth, I can hardly operate it” — the vibe is more summer camp canteen than it is government bureaucracy. Even with this community spirit, though, the Bridal Veil post office will always be on the brink.

Four months after my visit, a meeting was called by the Postal Service, and town residents gathered at the Franciscan convent to hear that the hours of operation would be cut by a third on January 1, from six hours daily to four. It was another small loss for a place that has seen more than its share of them. Canzler told me, following the meeting, that the Postal Service wants to reassign her and she sees it as a “foregone conclusion.” But all the jobs she’s seen available thus far are either too far from home or just not for her. She’d rather stay put.

This town was once dominated by men working long shifts in the mills; sometimes, their sons grew up to work there, too. Nowadays, the ongoing ties mostly involve women. Neither group, I would imagine, properly grasped its impact here. Canzler says she recently had a bride come by who represented the third generation of Bridal Veil–postmarked invitations in her family. These things matter, she says. She says that in Corbett — a slightly larger neighboring town with door-to-door postal delivery — the mailmen check on elderly citizens and “save lives every day.” She sometimes thinks about writing a letter to President Obama to explain the importance of preserving rural post offices like her own.

She looks at the clock, and then shakes her head and says she should probably get back to work, postmarking envelopes like she’s banging a small gavel, the stream of mail running the post office the way the Columbia River once powered the mill. 

Illustration by Damien Weighill

Filed Under: Weddings, Ghost Towns, Bridal Veil, Oregon

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes