The birth of the Railway Post Office in 1869

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In the earliest years of American history, there was no organized arrangement in any of the colonies for transmitting and distributing letters and packages. Letters were sent by friends, merchants and other private messengers. Even Indians were frequently employed in this service.

There was, however, a quintessential British postal system that was designed to advance imperialistic interest of the few and produce revenue for the crown.

New nation

After the American Revolution, the recently born nation needed a central network to circulate news throughout the land as well as deliver packages and letters. George Washington, James Madison and especially Dr. Benjamin Rush were determined to build on the colonial postal system of Benjamin Franklin and provide the people of a democratic republic with postal service.

In the decades of 1840 and 1850, a series of crucial events occurred to bring the Atlantic-oriented U.S. into a Pacific nation as well. The Mexican War, discovery of gold in California and an increase in population because of European emigration forced the U.S. Post Office to expand services.

The Overland Mail Co. and the Pony Express kept distant western lands free and connected to the Union during the civil strife of 1861-1865. The transcontinental railroad would be completed May 10, 1869, and cement the entire country into a nation.

By the end of the Civil War, trains had improved considerably since the early days, and locomotives equipped with headlights and more horsepower now chugged over tracks of a standard gauge (4 feet, 8 1/2 inches) even by night. More mail traveled by rail than by stagecoach, post-rider and steamship combined.

Railway post office

Aside from a few sorting of mail experiments on small eastern railroads, most trains carried bags of mail from place to place in one direction just like the stagecoach and post-riders. But with the Civil War demands, letter volume, creation of the postage stamp (1847), cheap postage and the general use of envelopes, the post office was required to create the Railway Post Office (RPO) in 1869.

The post office on the ribbon of rails increased the post’s speed and efficiency — not just by combining the mail processing and transportation but also by decentralizing certain costly, time-consuming operations, mainly sorting the volume of letters, newspapers and packages.

The RPO train cars were specially equipped to allow clerks to sort mail, scoop-up the mail sacks on the fly, and all the time processing mail as the train sped through the countryside. All of this added to the romance of train travel.

The RPO car was behind the engine and was devoted entirely to letter mail. A second mail car was devoted to mailbags, newspapers and other bulk items. The cars were 50 feet in length. They were uniform in width, 9-feet wide and 6-feet, 9-inches high.

On the exterior, the words United States Post Office were painted in attractive color as warning to thieves that you were dealing with the “feds.” The RPO cars were functional, crammed with sorting bins, cubicles and equipment with devices that allowed the clerks to snap mailbags of mail and other valuables that had been placed on trackside locks.

In the early days of railroading, the cheap wooden RPO cars were a very dangerous working environment. Fire was a constant threat. The cars were lit by oil and gas lamps, heated by a wood or coal stove, and located behind the locomotive which threw off sparks that occasionally lit fires on the landscape. If a train derailed, a flimsy RPO car could be crushed between the heavier engine and the passenger cars.

RPO clerks

In the 20th century, the RPO switched from the hazardous wooden cars to much safer steel cars and larger in size to handle the mail volume in an industrial age. Much was expected of an RPO clerk because on his memory, accuracy and integrity hung the success of the post office on rails. Each state had hundreds of railway mail routes and the clerks were expected to master the pieces of the national and state puzzle.

At the beginning of the last century only 2/5 of the applicants, who passed the test for general postal clerk, made the cut for the elite corps aboard the mail trains. Most of these clerks had better than average education and were trained for the Herculean feats of memorization that the job required by drilling with flashcards.

One mail clerk, working between Chicago and Detroit, “threw” 2,444 letters with only four errors. The work called for quick thinking, dealing with complex situations and being able to handle a firearm in case of a robbery attempt on valuables being mailed.

Functioning as a human-computer was essential but not sufficient for success as a RPO clerk. They also had to be physically handy enough to handle heavy mailbags and work shoulder to shoulder for extended hours traveling at 50 to 70 miles per hour without succumbing to motion sickness.

Some clerks worked for seven days straight, putting in 13 hour days, followed by nights sleeping in dormitories or tourist-homes. Then the workers relaxed a week or two at home and enjoyed a good wage for their efforts.

Clerks were required to reside within 5 miles of their assigned railroad in case of emergency call-out.

Stealth legacy

A major reason why the RPO industry has retained an almost stealth legacy is that its operations were shrouded in secrecy to thwart robbery. In an era when millions of dollars were transported by the U.S. Treasury Department around the country by rail, it was necessary to avoid attention. In 1929, $20 million in gold traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to New York City. In 1934, postal railway workers handled $155 billion in gold from North Carolina to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and never lost a dollar.

When the Hope Diamond, valued at $350 million, was donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1958, it was sent by mail at $2.44 postage, plus $142.05 for insurance and placed in a bag with other mail-in an RPO car.

During World War II, the RPO business was thrown into crisis mode. The mail and package business was like nothing seen in the nation’s history. The blend of people at home, G.I.s in foreign lands and military business produced a staggering amount of mail to be processed and transported.

But post-World War II life saw a change in transportation. The automotive and aviation revolution sent the once-mighty railroads, on which the U.S. Post Office had depended for nearly a century, into a precipitous decline. The mail system adjusted and shifted distribution from trains to motorized vehicles and airplanes.

By the 1960s, travel by train became less convenient and less comfortable. Carriers reduced service and allowed former premier trains to become shabby. In 1967, the U.S. Post Office ended the RPO cars except in the northeast corridor. That was ended in 1977 and more trains disappeared.

Amtrak appeared and provided passenger service, but no mail delivery. That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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