The connections between railroads and the mail go back nearly to the begining of rail service. The first recorded transport was made in the United Kingdom in 1830. The responsibility for carrying the mail was a primary factor in the awarding of public funds to build many early lines. Later, the mail contracts would become the financial boost necessary to help maintain many passenger services. Carrying the mail meant fast schedules, reliable service and hard work.
The Railway Post Office
For the first decade of transporting the mail, that is all the railroads did. Mail was picked up at small towns, taken to sorting centers, then taken back. In 1838, mail would be sorted for the first time on the train in a car on the UK’s Grand Juntion Railway. It was the birth of the RPO, or Railway Post Office. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in Missouri became the first in the United States in 1862. Mail picked up in towns was sorted by clerks as the train rolled on. At each stop, more mail came on and sorted mail was dropped off.
As service grew faster, trains didn’t even have to stop at every small town to move the mail. In a simultaneous blur of motion, outbound sacks of mail would be kicked to the station platform while the clerk held out the steel arm which would catch the inbound sachel. First patented in 1865, the mail crane and hook became more than just a tool, they became an iconic symbol of the golden age of railroading.
Onboard the RPO, clerks stood at sorting desks facing a rack of hundreds of “pigeon holes” which held letters for each town. Letters spread out of the table before them, they grabbed envelopes and swiftly moved them to the right box – often using two hands at the same time. As stations were called out, the mail was collected from the box, placed in a heavy sack and prepared for delivery. Seconds later, a new bag was open and spread out in front of them.
To make the cars as efficient as possible, the Post Office developed standard sets of plans. No matter what the car looked like on the outside or which railroad name was on the letterboard, inside they were all the same. Even the pigeon holes themselves were fitted with a four-sided name tag at the front of each box. This way a car could be used on four different routes by only resetting the names – not replacing every tag. A rack for the mail bags filled the center of the car. At one end, a very small bathroom facility and in the early years, a coal fired stove. The windows of the RPO were often protected by steel bars or with safety glass. Every RPO clerk was required to carry a gun and know how to use it. Security of the mail was never taken lightly.
Not only did the mail contain valuables, it also carried personal stories and letters which bring a different sort of value. One of the lesser known personal “tails” of the Railway Postal Service was their unofficial mascot – a scruffy little dog named “Owney.” You can read more about this heartwarming personal side of the story through the National Postal Museum, or a recently published book, A Lucky Dog: Owney, U.S. Rail Mail Mascot. (You’re children will love it as much as you do!)
The Mail Train
It was not uncommon to find an RPO on many different types of trains. From small branchline runs that used combination post-office / passenger / baggage cars to accomplish many tasks, to dedicated RPOs on famous trains like the Broadway Limited, to dedicated mail runs which included not only an active RPO, but also many cars loaded with presorted mail.
Traditionally, RPOs and other express cars were placed at the front, or head-end of the train. For this reason, mail and express was often referred to on the rails simply as “head-end traffic” regardless of where the cars were in the train. One reason for this was passenger safety. In the event of a collission, the cars at the front of the train were most likely to sustain damage. Another was efficiency. It was much faster to couple and uncouple these cars from the front of the train at the beginning, end, or at intermdediate stops on the run. It was not uncommon however to occassionally find “head end” cars attached to the back for the same reason.
Not all mail needed to be sorted along the way. There was often enough mail moving between major cities to justify complete dedicated carloads – or even trains. This “storage mail” could ride in baggage cars or express boxcars. Express boxcars were equipped with passenger car trucks and steam lines so that they could be used in passenger consists and travel smoothly at passenger train speeds. In addition to mail for the Post Office, these trains also carried parcel express traffic for companies like the Railway Express Agency. We’ll cover these cars more in another blog.
Although the last RPO run was made in 1977 between Washington D.C. and New York, bulk mail continues to travel by rail today. This mail usually includes lower-priority mail like magazines, catalogs, etc. Despite the efficiency of moving mail by rail, it can’t compete with the speed of an airplane. For many years, Amtrak continued to haul the mail in special “Material Handling Cars,” baggage cars and express boxcars. Other mail contracts have gone to freight railroads that move the bulk mail in trailers aboard priority intermodal trains. These expedited moves still cary the fastest schedules on the rails.
The advent of the airplane spelled the beginning of the end for railway mail service. At first, railroads tried to find cooperative ventures, and even helped start some airlines to move priority mail. The Illinois Central even tried an exchange between a moving train and a blimp in 1938 – but not surprisingly that idea never really “took off.”
By the 1950s, the speed of air travel and the growing efficiencies of highway transport were taking a huge bite into the railroads’ revenues, and the mail was no exception. Mail contracts kept some passenger trains in the black and on the schedule years longer than they would have survived otherwise, but ultimately the faster technology would win.