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NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM IS MORE THAN A STAMP COLLECTION

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More than a century ago, a cold, homeless terrier puppy sought solace in a pile of mailbags in Albany, N.Y. Workers took pity and let him stay, launching the pooch on a nine-year career traveling 143,000 miles around the world with the mail.

Thanks to the art of taxidermy, the dog maintains a stately place in U.S. Mail history - in a glass case amidst three early mail planes, a stagecoach and railway mail car at the Smithsonian Institution's new National Postal Museum that opens to the public Friday."The museum is much more than just a collection of stamps," said James H. Bruns, director of the new facility.

For example, the history of the mail is intimately linked with transportation, he explained, and the 90-foot high central gallery highlights that relationship.

The movement of mail led to the development of post roads and stage routes, steamship routes and air mail as it tied Americans together throughout the nation's history.

Museum visitors are guided along a simulated forest pathway like one followed by mail carriers before the nation had roads.

They are challenged to plot the best route for mail over rivers and mountains - using 19th century transportation.

They are introduced to the joy and heartbreak of letters from soldiers at war.

And, with the Smithsonian's collection forming the backbone of the new museum, visitors are given a chance to see some of the world's rarest stamps and the world's largest library of postal history and materials.

A part of that history is the little dog Owney, who was befriended by mail clerks and allowed to ride along on trucks and railway cars first to New York, then other cities, and eventually on a steamer trip around the world.

But there is more in the 75,000 square-foot museum that occupies much of the former Washington City Post Office adjacent to Union Station.

The three-year renovation to create the museum cost $15.4 million provided by the U.S. Postal Service, which will share the museum's operating costs with the Smithsonian Institution.

Perhaps most moving is "the smallest gallery with greatest impact," in the words of museum curator Nancy Pope - a section devoted to letter-writing.

Included is a wartime wife's letter, almost pleading for her husband to write that is still alive, and returned marked "deceased."

There is a series of letters from the Maddens of Virginia, chronicling the lives of this family since the 1700s.

There is a last letter to a mother from a young man killed in Vietnam, the letter found in his helmet after his death.

There are also moving letters home from immigrants to the new nation, telling of their successes and failures, concerns and hopes.

Another gallery contains a 1931 Ford mail truck and Charles Lindbergh's application to be an airmail pilot.

The displays on mail and American history include Benjamin Franklin's rate chart and envelopes sent by Civil War soldiers and prisoners of war.