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Mail by Rail


by Miriam Pysno & Katherine Fetter

Smithsonian National Postal Museum, washington, D.C. produced by giant child press, san marcos, tx 2010

Copyright © 2010 by the Smithsonian Institution, and Swava Pearl of Giant Child Press Produced December 2010 in an edition of 2,000 copies on the occasion of Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s exhibition: Rail by Mail. 10 October–December 15 2010 Curated by Nancy A. Pope, Historian, Smithsonian National Postal Museum. The authors would like to thank Deanna Boyd and Jennifer Giambone for their hard work on this project. Ms. Boyd did a tremendous job of gathering names and addresses of retired RPO clerks to begin the work. As you read the RPO clerk interviews, know that Jennifer Giambone contacted each clerk who responded to our inquiry. The majority of the clerks agreed to be interviewed by telephone, and Ms. Giambone spent many hours working with clerks to help them recall life and details now decades in the past. Designed and typeset by Swava Pearl of Giant Child Press, San Marcos, Texas. Printed and bound by Swava Pearl of Giant Child Press, San Marcos, Texas. All images, unless noted otherwise, are courtesy of the National Postal Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Dust cover and Checklist: Galbraith’s Railway Mail Service Maps, Kansas, Frank H. Galbraith: Library of Congress (G4201.P3 1897 .G3 Vault : RR 223) Page 4: Clerks Standing With Catcher Arm courtesy of Daniel Holovach of Toms River, New Jersey Page 8–9, 15: RPO Group Shots and Sleeping RPO courtesy of the family of Stephen T. Whitehurst of Levittown, Pennsylvania


4  History of the Service

the creation , 1832-1864 a fast start , 1864-1875 expansion and turmoil , 1876-1920 race relations decades of change , 1920-1950 world war ii the final run , 1960-1977 after rms , 1977-present

14  A Day in the Life mail on the fly time - off , schemes , and exams camaraderie love this job

19  Danger on the Rail wrecks fires robbery weather

25 Checklist 31  Bibliography

On June 30, 1977, a train pulled into Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. In addition to passenger and baggage cars the train included a Railway Post Office (RPO) car. This was the end of America’s Railway Mail Service (RMS) one of the most dramatic, colorful, and extensive programs of in the history of the nation’s postal system. Postal employees processed ever-increasing piles of mail on board moving train cars on railway lines that crisscrossed the nation. At the service’s height in the mid 20th century, Railway Post Office clerks handled 93% of the nation’s non-local mail.1 Although after 1949 (when buses were added to carry mail over routes abandoned by shrinking pass eng er railways), the RMS was renamed the Postal

HISTORY of the Service

Transportation Service (PTS), but was still referred to by most in and out of the postal system as the Railway Mail Service. The early wooden, and later steel, RPO train cars were a regular sight on American railroads for over 100 years. On board these cars were teams of clerks working to ensure that all the mail loaded into the car was sorted and loaded into mail sacks for delivery to post offices across the nation. In its earliest days the job was one of the most exacting in the postal system. And through the early 1920s, it was also the most dangerous. This exhibition is devoted to the hard working men of the Railway Mail Service/Postal Transportation Service. Their numbers are dwindling

with the years. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has been fortunate to be in contact with several retired RPO clerks. Their stories are a critical component of this exhibition, and their memories vital to the complete and accurate telling of the RMS/PTS story. This exhibition is dedicated to these clerks and the thousands who came before—the men of the Railway Mail Service.

“Well, when you first start, I mean every thing’s new, but I mean, you have to take an exam, in the beginning you have to take an exam for state, like Pennsylvania was broken up in three ways, and then New Jersey was another one, and the peninsula was another one, New York or part of New York was another one, and then the rest of the time was all Pittsburgh, New York, or Philadelphia.” —Louis V. Barner, RPO Clerk

The Creation, 1832-1864

Through the first decades of the 19th century, postal officials relied on stagecoaches and boats to extend mail service into growing national territories. In 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened, carrying people and cargo. Two years later, in 1832, officials granted a stagecoach line an annual fee of $400 to carry mail “on the railroad”1 in Pennsylvania. As railways grew, so did the opportunities for moving mail faster to more locations. In 1838 all U.S. railroads were designated as “post roads,” encouraging wider access for mail onto America’s burgeoning railroad lines. Railroads experienced tremendous growth over the next decade. By 1840, 2,818 miles of railroad track had been laid in the U.S. By the beginning of the Civil War, 21 years later, 30,000 miles of track were carrying passengers and mail in the country. As train lines grew, so did the Post Office Department’s reliance on the young transportation system’s ability to move more mail, more quickly, than stagecoaches or boats. Pouches full of mail were placed on train cars as cargo, traveling unopened to their destinations. In 1840, postal officials began to examine their use of railway lines for carrying mail. The Department assigned two mail route agents to accompany mail on board a car on the Boston to Springfield, MA train route. The agents were told to make mail exchanges along the route, as well as to “attend to delivery, and receive and forward all unpaid way letters and packages received.”2 Under these directions the agents removed mail from the pouches, removing and separating items destined for post offices along the train route. It was the first step in the evolution of the relationship between America’s railways and its mail. By mid century, it was evident that postal officials viewed the future American railroads to be the primary mail mover in the nation. By the 1850s the Post Office Department was spending more money to carry mail by rails than by stagecoach and steamers combined. Railroads carried mail over 19,202,469 pieces of mail in 1855, stagecoaches and steamers together carried 23,318,945. The cost per mile for carrying mail on railway cars averaged fewer than eleven cents per mile, three cents cheaper than the cost by mile for steamer mail, but five cents more per mile than the average stagecoach contract.3 Postal officials continued to increase their reliance on America’s railroads for carrying mails through the 1850s, as spending for railway mail grew from $1,275,520 in 1852 to $2,310,389 just four years later.4 Mail agents continued their rudimentary mail processing until postal officials made a giant step in the way they used trains to carry mail. This radical new system appeared in Missouri in 1862 under the direction of General William A. Davis, who had served as the St. Joseph, MO, postmaster from 1855–1861. During his tenure as postmaster, Davis had witnessed the Pony Express service, which began operating out of St. Joseph on April 4, 1860. He had witnessed the rush to move the mail by rail to the Pony Express headquarters before the rider could leave town. He understood the importance of making sure the mail was ready to go the moment it came off the train, and not trapped in a mail pouch that had to be delivered to a post office for sorting. On August 5, 1862, Davis reported the successful completion of mail processing and distribution of mail aboard a moving train to the assistant Postmaster General. Davis installed some rudimentary mail sorting tables on board a train car and assigned a clerk work the mail while the train was in motion. “We have now gotten through a week’s service,” he noted in his report, “and can confidently report that the accommodations are furnished that are promised by Mr. Hayward, superintendent of the road, the distribution can be done entirely to your satisfaction.”5 Davis was using a specially outfitted train car on the Hannibal-St. Joseph line for the experiment. The car contained a sorting table and pigeon-hole letter sorting case. Although successful, the Hannibal-St. Joseph service ended in less than a year. The beleaguered state of Missouri was not the best choice for such a test during the Civil War.


A Fast Start, 1864-1875

Encouraged by the Missouri results, postal officials moved the en route mail sorting plan north. During the summer of 1864 Third Assistant Postmaster General A.N. Zevely assigned two special agents to test the practicality of the railway post office. George B. Armstrong, Chicago’s postmaster, was designated to control all states and territories west of the east line of Indiana and south of the Ohio River, while Harrison Park presided over the eastern division.1 The first railway postal route came into operation on the Iowa division of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa on August 28, 1864 with clerks, Leonard and Bradley on board. Zevely remained in charge of the fledgling service, while Armstrong was appointed special agent in charge of the service in the West. By the end of 1864, all mail in transit began to be distributed in railroad cars.2 In 1865, Postmaster General William Denison asked congress to recognize the service and begin attaching funding for the experiment. Armstrong received full supervision of the service in 1869. As the lines grew and developed, railway post offices continually made changes to further progress and popularize the Railway Mail Service. Two clerks, on average, were assigned to distribute mail in each car, sometimes more on densely occupied routes. Clerks were given schemes showing maps of a state that helped in the memorization of post offices for mail distribution. These were first implemented in 1868 along with checks “to detect errors in processed mail.”3 The idea of separating mail by states soon became an innovation that helped reduced backups. To make collecting the mail bag from each station faster without having to stop every time, the Post Office used a mail bag catching device to transfer mail from a stationary pole to a moving train car. The Ward mail bag catcher was first used in 1869.4 This device consisted of a steel arm affixed to railway post office doors that would then be used to “grab” the mail bag from a fixed crane situated at each post office along the lines. Previously, the mail clerk would extend his arm out the railway post office door to catch the bag leading to frequent missed exchanges and dropped bags. The Ward catcher helped decrease the occurrence of this predicament and allowed trains to move at faster speeds. Despite this improvement, the catcher exchange was not perfect. Many clerks admit to dropping the bag at least once during their career.

In September 1875, the Railway Mail Service underwent a new cycle of change with the construction of the first fivecar train consisting of four postal cars and one coach.5 Assembled with the help of participating railroads, such as the New York Central and the Pennsylvania railroads, this new train (dubbed “Fast Mail”) traveled between New York City and Chicago, Illinois through Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toledo.6 In an 1874 annual report General Superintendent George S. Bangs explained the new train was “designed to expedite the movement of mail from the east to the west and cover the distance in about 24-hrs.”7 Previously fast trains ran on separate lines resulting in longer connections times. With the cooperation

of numerous rail lines, the fast mail cut off twelve to twenty-four hours of travel time, a phenomenal accomplishment for its time.8 In addition, it carried larger quantities of mail. On its first trip, the train carted “more than 33 tons of mail.”9 The initial train earned the nickname of New York Central’s “Twentieth Century Limited,” while its rival from the Pennsylvania Railroad became known as “Limited Mail.”10 The popularity of fast mail eventually went bi-coastal in 1889 traveling on the New York and Chicago to San Francisco.11 New lines were also added between New York, St. Louis, and Cincinnati via the Pennsylvania Railroad and its connections with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Indianapolis.12 Although the fast mail train proved to be an operational success, Congress was not interested in continuing the funding for the service and it was discontinued only eleven months after the initial send off.13


Expansion and Turmoil, 1876-1920 The turn of the 20th century brought more changes for the Railway Mail Service. The Railway Post Office clerk’s life was considered “one filled with risks,” as acknowledged by the Second Assistant Postmaster General.1 Clerks frequently encountered train wrecks, falls, derailments, fires, and robberies. One of the more prominent safety hazards were the wooden cars. A simple spark could ignite a blazing fire. The wooden framed cars provided no protection against flames, adding and, in the fact were little more than kindling as they were filled with bags of mail. On January 1, 1913, the Parcel Post Act was ratified. It offered a new way to send large objects through the mail. Within its first five days of activity, four million packages were handled by 1,594 post offices nationwide. Eventually, strict regulations had to be set up to restrict what could or could not be sent after people attempted to transport unconventional packages. One couple in 1914 could not afford the train fair for their four-year old daughter to visit her grandparents, so they tacked the grandparents’ address on the child and sent her by way of the Railway Post Office for the cheaper rate of fifty-three cents. Items deemed “non mailable” included, but were not limited to, “matter manifestly obscene, lewd or lascivious; articles intended for preventing conception or for procuring abortion; articles intended for indecent or immoral purposes,”2 “Spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquors of any kind; poisons of any kind, and articles and compositions containing poisons,”3 and “live or dead (and not stuffed) animals, birds, or poultry.4” This addition of more flammable materials increased the risk of fires and explosions along lines. Wooden Railway Post Office cars were made more dangerous by the practice of using gas or oil to illuminate and heat the car. By 1896, 215 of the post offices used gas, while only thirteen used electricity. Of those cars, 42 percent used steam to provide heat, and 27 percent employed gas.5 Steel gradually replace some wood cars, but railroads continued to prefer the more inexpensive wood to fireproof materials for RPO car construction. The late 1800s were the deadliest decades for the Railway Mail Service. Clerks faced risks every day spent on the job. This provided little comfort or compensation for worried families at home. The “Brotherhood of Railway Mail Clerks” organized in 1886 to fight

“I had a little square box one time that said ‘human remains’ on it...” —Gerald Lange, former RPO clerk

for better wages and safer working conditions. By 1898, a beneficial department was added to the “Brotherhood,” paying “$4000 for accidental death and $18 weekly for disability.”6 In 1904, it was renamed the Railway Mail Association, until 1949 when it was renamed the National

Postal Transportation Association7 in recognition of the service’s title change that same year. When the Railway Mail Service and U.S. government met the demands of railway postal clerks, it was usually in answer to issues from the service’s white employees. African Americans faced greater hardships and unable to join the “white union,” had no spokesperson to fight for their rights as well. That began to change in 1913 with the formation of the National Alliance of Postal Employees in 1913. During America’s involvement in the First World War (1917–1918), Railway Mail Service clerks were exempted from the draft, administrative and military officials considering the processing of America’s armed forces’ mail to be of critical importance.8

“Every guy in the mail train carried a gun, a revolver...but everybody had a revolver and you carried your revolver when you were in the mail train. And you’d take it with you and go up to, we had clubs where we stayed at in New York and Chicago, and you’d take your gun there, and you’d kinda keep it, sleep under your pillow [laughs]. You’d be sleeping during the day, so.”—Donald Miller, former RPO


Race Relations

“There was no trouble with the crews, no ma’am. We respected African American clerk-incharge and we did what he said to do. Yes ma’am there was never, had any problem on the road.”—Johnnie Page of Decatur, Georgia The Railway Mail Service (RMS) had a racially integrated workforce for most of its existence. Through the years, on the trains, as it was in American life in general race could be a source of tension. Black clerks face obstacles and discrimination in the service. In 1891, Black workers expressed discontent at their treatment by H.M. Robinson, the new chief clerk to the Railway Mail Service. The African American community charged that he forced them to do menial labor that was not within their job descriptions. There were also claims he had ordered an employee to start a fire in mail car with a mainly Black crew. White clerks began to protest against this treatment of their coworkers and called for an end to Robinson’s tenure.1 The presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) marked a particularly difficult period for race relations in the RMS. Discrimination was a problem prior to President Wilson but found a huge public forum during his presidency. The era of Wilsonian Progressivism was tainted by segregation and discrimination against the African American community. Federal segregation marked a huge set-back for Black workers in the Post Office Department, which at that time was the largest employer of African Americans in the federal government. The first year of Wilson’s administration was a significant moment in governmentsanctioned discrimination and federal segregation. Under Wilson, segregation was introduced into the Federal Government. Among those who were eager to embrace the separation of races was Wilson’s friend and Postmaster General, Albert Burleson. In a cabinet meeting Burleson let it be known that he “was anxious to segregate white and negro [sic]...[to do what] was best for the negro [sic] and best for the service.2 He stated in that same meeting that the conditions aboard RMS train cars was “intolerable” when whites not only worked with African-Americans, but also used the same drinking glasses, towels, and washrooms.3 While Woodrow Wilson had managed to garner support from the Black community during his campaign for the presidency in 1912 by guaranteeing fairness, he did little to stop Burleson’s overt racism.4 Unfortunately, many white clerks supported Burleson’s policies. In 1913, clerk Robert Prather of Little Rock, AR, presented Postmaster General Albert Burleson with a petition calling for the segregation of clerks in the Railway Mail Service by race. The petition was signed by 8,000 clerks and cited various grievances. These included resentment at having to share sleeping quarters with Black men and occasionally being subordinate to Black clerks with superior positions.5 As this was happening, changes also began in the construction of railway cars.6 Railway Post Office cars were traditionally made of wood and rode just behind the locomotive. This resulted, not surprisingly, in fiery blazes, killing clerks and burning mail. As steel

cars became more common, there were debates over Black RPO clerks being regulated to older wooden cars while other clerks moved to the new steel cars.7 African American RMS clerks faced perhaps an even larger tradition of discrimination, as most railroad brotherhoods did not admit Black workers, a trend that was extended to the Railway Mail brotherhood. African Americans and recent immigrants could be expected to take lower paying jobs because their exclusion from brotherhoods left them devoid of bargaining tools. American railroad brotherhoods, including the Railway Mail Association, refused admittance to their Black coworkers. Many Southern members in particular believed that admittance of Black men, “would be tantamount to admitting that the Negro [sic] is the ‘social equal’ of the white man;” a truth they refused to accept.8 This exclusion from the various brotherhoods left African Americans with no gravitas with which they could improve their status. In August 1913, African American postal workers met in Tennessee to discuss their experiences. In October, representatives from thirteen states formed the National Alliance of Postal Employees (NAPE). The Alliance sought to help Black men provide for their families, begin a national journal for Black railway clerks, and be a tool the community could use to voice grievances and complaints. The National Alliance of Postal Employees was ultimately opened to all races. The NAPE since added other federal employees to its ranks and continues to this day.9 The white railway mail employee association took longer to come around and, in fact, needed a push from the law to accept Black men into its ranks. In 1944, a New York State court of Appeals ruled that the Railway Mail Association was a union and therefore, could not bar Blacks from membership. The group had been recognized as a fraternal beneficiary society prior to this decision and limited its membership to white men and Native Americans. The RMA’s classification as a union with the United States Department of Labor as well as its relationship with the American Federation of Labor made it clear that it was a union, not a brotherhood, forcing it to abide by union regulations and end its discrimination of Black workers.10 Although discrimination against Black clerks continued through the 1940s and 1950s, integration in the Railway Mail Service was the rule of law and became more and more accepted. Nanette Chastain, whose father Albert Osborne Chastain was a Railway Post Office Clerk and mainly worked out of Chicago and Cincinnati remembers,

“The crew was integrated at a time that racial prejudice was still overt in this country. Dad never cared what color a man’s skin was—he only cared about the quality of the man and whether he did a good job and pulled his weight on the crew. It was a great lesson to teach his children.”11

Decades of Change, 1920s-1950s Through the 1920s and 1930s, the Railway Mail Service would realize its greatest reach and strength. Over 10,000 trains carried mail-sorting clerks across the country in 1930 alone. Stronger cars and improved tracks and communications had driven accident rates down, and consequently RPO clerk life spans up. In addition to the clerks working on board trains, RMS personnel were working mail at railway terminal stations in several cities. While postal officials would have eagerly kept mail-filled

trains running service to as many towns as possible, this was not to be the case in the mid 20th century. In the mid 1930s, at the height of Railway Mail’s success, railway passenger service began a long, steady decline that would ultimately prove fatal to the RMS. Mail fees alone could not sustain railway lines, and as passenger need declined, railway line service declined with them. The Railway Mail Service began its decline in the 1930s, but was by no means irrelevant through the mid 20th century. RPO clerks worked to sort mail through the Great Depression, at a time when mail remained the primary communication method for most Americans. While many joined the military, many other RPO clerks stayed and worked through America’s involvement in the Second World War (1941–1945), when moving mail accurately and quickly was critical not only to the war effort, but peace of mind of families and loved ones at war. And, as is clear from numerous oral interviews conducted with clerks, the RMS became a job of choice for many servicemen returning from the war. But nothing could maintain the Railway Mail Service at its pre-WWII levels when passengers continued to choose automobiles or airplanes over trains. Postal officials used highway buses to replace some disappearing train route lines, but even those did not last very long in comparison. Airmail gradually became the preferred mode of mail transit for postal officials. By 1975, the Postal Service was placing so much mail aboard airplanes on a regular basis that the separate “air mail” first class postage charge was discontinued. While American airlines continue to carry America’s (and international) mail, postal officials continue to transfer more mail onto trucks where costs make the carriage of mail by highway less expensive. As the skies were opening up for travelers and mail, so the country was discovering a love for longer and longer automobile trips. Just as the greatest success of Airmail Service came with the adaption of aircraft that could carry larger and larger cargos, the mid 20th century focus on establishing an interstate highway system would bring short and long haul trucks to the attention of postal officials as effective mail carriers. In the early 1900s a cross-country trip would have taken approximately two months. With the establishment of a national highway system, this was cut down to two weeks. President Eisenhower signed the

Federal Highway Bill on June 29, 1956, which authorized the construction of an interstate highway system.1 All Americans found themselves affected by Eisenhower’s new bill; either directly as motorists, or indirectly through the movement of mail and consumer goods.2


World War II

Before the Highway Post Office began its rapid growth in the 1950s, it suffered a startup delay during the war. As the United States became formally involved in the Second World War at the end of 1941, life in America underwent a number of adjustments. Railway Post Office Department Division Superintendent, J.H. Musgrave, summed up the shocking events in one of his weekly news circulars stating, “The year 1941 has passed into history. The almost unbelievable events recorded this year are legion and when the true history is written, it undoubtedly will picture one of the darkest periods on record. We ‘Americans’ have much to be thankful and proud of, for while we are now engaged in an all-out war into which we were forced, yet the privilege of liberty is still ours and will be ours so long as we are willing to give what it takes to maintain our Democratic form of government.”1 From rations on food to limitations on raw materials available for industry, the way of life changed on the American home front. This was true for the Post Office Department also; materials were conserved, train lines were changed, and personnel turned over as men went to war. Clerks’ minimum work week moved from fourty to fourty-eight hours.2 As American society devoted itself to the war effort, materials became harder to acquire, including those used by Railway Post Office clerks to secure mail into bundles and close and lock mail bags. These materials could all be devoted to the war effort, instead of mail delivery. The Department joined in the campaign to redirect resources, encouraging its clerks to collect unused twine and use existing resources as long as they held out. One postal superintendent went as far as to print conservation ads in its Cincinnati newspapers using a derogatory term of the era, “Save your scraps! And jolt the Japs!”3 Measures were also taken to ensure the safety of the RPO cars during the war. Black-out curtains were added to mail cars in order allow clerks to continue their important work at night. They were made of black oil cloth and could be rolled up or down depending on time of day. Instructions concerning proper blackout procedures were passed amongst Railway Mail Service employees. Additionally, railroad companies began separating cargo, mail and passenger cars. The separation would expedite

faster movement and delivery of war materials across the country. Some soldiers had left the Railway Mail Service to serve. By 1944, 3,952 former RPO clerks were in the armed forces.4 Many of these men returned to the Railway Mail Service at war’s end. Others’ tales of the service inspired fellow soldiers to look to the Railway Mail Service for a job when they returned home. “I worked...overseas, I got talking to some Railway Mail clerks. They were sorting mail. And decided when I was overseas. And when I came back, I took the examination in 1946, when I got out of the service, got married, and that’s the start of my career with the Railway Mail Service, yup.”—Richard Jennings, former RPO clerk After the war, RPO clerks returned to their 40-hour work week (restored in October 1945). They also received an increase in pay: $6 per day in their travel allowance and $1,370 increase in their annual salary.5 In 1949, the Post Office Department recognized the changing mail transportation landscape and renamed the Railway Mail Service. The RMS was folded into a new Postal Transportation Service (PTS). This new branch combined all modes of mail transit: Airmail, Highway Post Offices, Railway Post Offices, terminals, and transfer offices.6 In 1950, only 16,000 of 32,000 PTS employees actually worked on railroads, which was still the “most important part of the service.”7

“1977, that was the last working mail train that ever rode the rails. It was a glorious affair full of tears and all like that. But I think if the trains were running today, I would still be on there, and I’m sure some of the others because we were very, very dedicated. We loved that job. But that was the last run, and that’s a sad story.” —Winston Lark, former RPO clerk


The Final Run, 1960-1977

The Railway Mail Service continued to fade in the 1960s and 1970s. Airplanes and trucks had taken up the slack left by the nation’s still shrinking railway lines. Short and long-haul cargo trucks carried more and more mail as postal officials looked to save money while keeping the mail moving. The Highway Post Offices that were created to replace some railroad service ended in 1974, three years before the Railway Mail Service made its last run. That last run came on June 30, 1977, as the last RPO car rolled into Washington, DC’s Union Station from New York City.

After RMS, 1977-present

Following the end of the Railway Mail Service (or Postal Transportation Service, as it was renamed in 1949), and the withdrawal of the New York & Washington Railway Post Office, some mail has continued to move by rail. Amtrak initiated a mail train between Boston, Washington, with some service to intermediate cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Mail was carried in sealed cars and Road Railers (specially built highway trailers designed for use on railroads) between major termini until September 30, 2006, when Amtrak abandoned most of its head-end traffic operations to concentrate upon its core function of moving intercity passengers. Several railway companies have likewise continued services using trailers suitable for transport on railways and other modes of transportation from the 1970s to the present. Current operators are Norfolk Southern’s subsidiary, Thoroughbred-Direct Intermodal Services, and the Florida East Coast Railway. First class, Priority, and Express Mail have been carried over railroads during the past three decades.

“The night was coal black, and it was awkward holding onto the mail sack with one hand, the other on the crossbar... watching for the faint glow of the light on the crane...The wind tried to steal your breath away...There was both relief and satisfaction when I heard the ‘whing’ of the pouch as it was snatched.” ­—L. E. Davis, RPO Clerk


a day

The life of a Railway Post Office clerk was one of adventure, excitement, practice, and hard work. Clerks spent days away from home, traveling through the American heartland. They spent off time memorizing post-offices and schemes. Their lives were filled with friendship and camaraderie, as clerks spent countless hours bonding with their colleagues. They faced hazards, like fires and wrecks, and took their jobs very seriously. Railway Post Office clerks were considered by many to be the elite of the mail service. They were highly respected by people in stationary units and strove to maintain their high reputation by always sorting and processing the mail with speed and accuracy. More than anything, RPO clerks loved their job.

in th e life Mail on the Fly

As early as 1865, before the arrival of mail cranes, mail was exchanged on nonstop trains, but to do so, engineers had to slow trains down to a crawl so clerks could exchange the mail by hand. This system, both inefficient and dangerous, was soon scrapped. The first track side Railway Mail Service cranes were wooden, F-shaped, mechanisms. They were soon replaced by a simple steel hook and crane. As tremendously successful as it was, mail “on-the-fly” still had its share of glitches. Clerks had to pay special attention to raising the train’s catcher arm. If they hoisted it too soon, they risked hitting switch targets, telegraph poles or semaphores which would rip the catcher arm right off the train. Too late, and they would miss an exchange. Each missed exchange would net a clerk five demerits. Missed exchanges were a special threat on a handful of eastern runs that had less than a minute between some exchanges. On single line tracks, mail cranes could appear on either side, and woe be the new clerk who, alertly looking out the right-hand side of the train, missed a series of mail cranes on the left-hand side. Experienced clerks on board night mail trains relied on the sound or “feel” of the tracks, knowing by the train’s speed or the curves of the track how far away they were from a mail crane. Exchanging the mail was a two-part process, after the clerk snagged the mail bag with the catcher arm, he had to toss out that station’s mailbag. If a clerk did not kick the mailbag out far enough, it could get trapped beneath the wheels of the train, bursting open and sending letters flying everywhere. The clerks called such small disasters “snowstorms.” On the other hand, too much “oomph” could also be a problem. One poor clerk tossed the mailbag out with such force that it sailed through the bay window of the station house. Another kicked off his shoe along with the bag.

Time-Off, Schemes, and Exams

“I had to study exams. For each state I, oh I put up examinations so I could sort mail and I knew every post office in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. I even studied Texas sometimes, so yes, I had to study and put up exams, in other words, so I had to learn how, what post office, how you’d reach the mail, you’d reach different places.” —Ernest Kruis of Altoona, Pennsylvania Clerks worked runs that could last five or more days. They often left for a run at nightfall, worked all night long and slept only when they were “up” on their mail. So much time away from home sometimes put a strain on clerks’ families who had to adjust to an unusual schedule. Many women relied on other family members to help care for their children while they worked. When the clerks came home, however, they often spent all of their time off with their children. Susan Leidy, daughter of Kenneth Leidy who ran New York to Pittsburgh, remembers that on his off days he was with her “At first it was difficult because I was away from home, you and her sister twenty-four hours a day. When he went away, know, my wife was alone with a couple of kids, so it was difficult but after a while once you got into the routine of they always knew he would be back soon. While RPO clerks worked abnormal schedules, they it, it was great. Because she worked and I was home for a quickly adjusted and made good use of their downtime whole week at a time, you know.”—Ed Levy of Tamarac, between shifts. Aside from playing with their children or Florida spending time with their spouses, many clerks worked second jobs to make a little extra money. Clerks were paid for a 48-minute hour, which compensated for the studying they did between shifts. RPO clerks were expected to have working knowledge of hundreds of post offices. Not only did they know all of the post offices on their runs, they also knew all the post offices connected to the train line. They had to know the fastest way to get mail to its destination. For a letter going from Boston to Kansas City on a train moving from Boston to Washington, DC, clerks had to know which train lines intersected with theirs and when. Did that letter have to go to onto a train in NYC? Philadelphia? Washington? What was the best way for that letter to get to Kansas City? Keeping it all straight meant practice, practice, practice. Clerks prided themselves on their accuracy and the speed with which mail was moved. Railway Post Office clerks were tested about every six months. Joseph Beauchemin remembers working out of New York City. He recalls, “We were given exams too, and if you didn’t pass the exam at 99%, perfect, they’d take you off the Railway Mail, so that was a pretty tough test. You had to know all the transportation plus the streets and where they went to in Manhattan. You had to study all of these at home, and that’s why we used to get extra money. We used to have a card and we used to practice until we memorized all this stuff so we could sort it on the train because you can’t study on the train, you had to do the work, you know.” Accuracy mattered just as much as speed and clerks were embarrassed if their mail was delivered incorrectly. Incorrect sorting could also result in demerits against clerks. Facing slips were attached to each bundle of letters. These slips were signed by the clerk who sorted each bundle so anyone who made a mistake could be easily identified.



and equipped with lavatory facilities because the trains ran “The guys liked to play different kinds of jokes like that, all so long without breaks. Clerks worked together to sort and of them, good sports about it. It was just, we became very deliver the mail speedily. close out there. We were together for about six days and Susan Leidy remembers her father, Kenneth Leidy, “always nights, and you just became like a big family.” —Daniel came home full of jokes and stories.” “The camaraderie I thought was super. Though you had Moore of Grafton, West Virginia Life on the trains wasn’t just the same old routine day- a couple of fellows who wouldn’t get along together, and in and day-out. Aside from the dangerous hazards of fire wouldn’t talk to each other, but for the most part, it was a and train wrecks, and the off-the-wall packages of eggs or well oiled machine, I think, we took pride in our work. And human remains, Railway Mail Clerks also had to deal with I will always be proud to have been a Railway Mail clerk.” the frenzy of the winter holidays. From early November to —Edward Rountree of Jacksonville, Florida late January, the Railway Mail Service expected high mail volume, known as heavy mails while summer months experienced lighter mails. Some RPOs added extra staff to runs in the winter and cut down in the summer. But it was the unexpected bursts of heavy mails that were the hardest to deal with. Mail volume was always monitored and recorded because the public cared about speed.1 Railway Post Office clerks loved the adventure of working the railway mail. The challenge of working the mail on moving trains really motivated many clerks to take the job. There was also the appeal of traveling the United States. Aubrey Booth of Forest, Virginia, remembers stopping in Washington, D.C. on his run. He saw President Johnson and Senator Robert Kennedy. Robert Butler of Falling Water, West Virginia, often designated some of his trip money to see the New York Yankees play or to catch a matinee on Broadway, when he was in New York City. Jack Karrick of Florence, Kentucky, remembers, “Being free, seeing things move around you and you know, I mean, it’s all a kind of a romance about it.” Perhaps the most remarkable and special part of the Railway Post Office was the camaraderie that developed between the clerks. Because these men spent so much time together on the trains, and because they shared such close quarters, they became very close, almost like family. RPO cars were packed tightly with letter cases and pouch racks,

Love this Job

“We just loved it. We were a small band of lucky people in that job like that. We got dirty, but we had to use our brains, and we were doing a job that meant a lot to people that never even knew we existed.” —Richard Jennings of Wakefield, Massachusetts Railway Mail Clerks, above all, loved their jobs. They took great pride in their achievements and great pleasure in their success. The best way to understand their adoration of the job is to listen to them talk about it. “But it was enjoyable. Most enjoyable job I ever did.” —Joseph Kitts of Christiansburg, Virginia “Didn’t like about it? No, it was the best part of my career. I had 38 years, and I loved the Railway Postal Service.” —Daniel Moore of Grafton, West Virginia

The job of Railway Post Office clerk was not one without its risks. In fact, RPO clerks faced more day-to-day hazards than the average railroad employee. Clerks were entrusted to sort and deliver the mail from a moving train car, placed just behind the engine of the train. This was indisputably one of the most dangerous places on the whole train. Cars were made of wood and were basically filled with kindling as they carried mail across the country, making them particularly prone to catching fire. They were also more likely to experience extreme damage in a wreck. The number of casualties and injuries among RPO clerks was astounding. Between 1890 and 1905, one hundred forty-three Railway Post Office clerks lost their lives in accidents and incidents on the trains.1 In addition, robberies were a serious concern for the Railway Mail Clerks. Trains were the best option for transporting heavy packages like those filled with gold, for example. Because of the RMS was so highly trusted, important packages like those containing gold were entrusted to the clerks.

In answer to a number of robbery attempts, Railway Post Office clerks were required to always have revolvers on hand in 1921. The allure of riches was difficult for some to resist, armed clerks or not. Banks, businesses and people used the mails to send money, even jewelers sent their goods through the mail. The registered mail could be a great take for a thief. Inclement weather also posed serious problems for mail clerks who were expected to complete their job regardless of delays caused by floods or blizzards.

Danger on the Rail

“When you are in a mail car and suddenly see all the letters flying around like pigeons, and there are ties and broken rails going past the windows, you can be sure there’s going to be a wreck on your line. And that you will be in it.” —Daniel Moschenross, clerk on Toledo & St. Louis


Train wrecks were a serious problem for all railroad employees, but particularly for Railway Post Office clerks. Because RPO cars were located directly behind the locomotive and tender, mail clerks often took the brunt of the impact in collisions. Wooden cars often ended in fiery blazes or in total destruction. In 1893 the Second Assistant Postmaster General stated to Congress, “The work [of the RPO clerk] is performed in the midst of danger. The cars in which the distribution is made are run in nearly every instance next to the engine, which is the most dangerous position in the train, and they are more liable to be wrecked, burned, or submerged in water when accidents occur than the engine, baggage, express cars, and passenger coaches.” This was obviously detrimental to the workforce, as many were injured and killed. Between 1890 and 1901, there were 6,089 accidents involving trains with full or apartment postal cars. In those same years, 86 clerks were killed and 617 seriously injured. Between 1902 and 1905, there were 1,403 injury-causing accidents. 56 clerks were killed and 381 were seriously injured. According to the same Assistant Postmaster General, “a larger percentage of railway postal clerks are killed and injured annually than all other employees upon trains to which the postal cars are attached.” The deaths suffered by clerks in wrecks were often excruciatingly gruesome. Theodore F. Wedemeyer was involved in a derailment that ended in the mail car completely upside-down off the tracks. The steam dome in the engine burst, sending steam and mud in the direction of the clerks aboard the train. Many, including Wedemeyer endured scalding burns. Just 44 days later, Wedemeyer died in a collision on the Cheyenne & Huntington.1 Many wrecks ended in complete wreckage and no survivors. As clerks became fed up with the large number of casualties and injuries they saw on the job, they began to organize to make a change. The Railway Mail Mutual Benefit Association (MBA) was formed in 1874 and sought to offer low rate life insurance to mail clerks. It offered $2,000 to the beneficiaries of any covered person who died on the job.2 Additionally, the MBA lobbied for legislation for better wages and improved working conditions.3 When Congress unexpectedly cut pay on two levels of clerks in 1886, the Brotherhood of Railway Mail Postal Clerks formed to combat the change. The number of wrecks dropped off significantly as the Twentieth Century progressed. This was mostly due to new technology in train construction. In addition to the advent of steel reinforced cars (see FIRE!), many advancements were made in the first half of the 1900s. These advancements included the double track, heavy rail and ballasts, air brakes, and the automatic block system. All of these changes meant safer trains and RPOs.



At the inception of the Railway Mail Service and prior to that, train cars were made primarily of wood. This was problematic and caused huge risk of fires. This issue was even more imminent for the Railway Post Office cars, which were located directly behind the locomotive and tender and were therefore very susceptible to fire. The mail car was placed there in order to protect the passenger cars that were further behind the RPO.1 If a spark from the engine flew back toward the mail car, fire could break out. The biggest causes of fires in RPO cars were their oil lamps or wooden stoves being upset in a wreck or quick stop, tossing fire into what was nothing less than kindling all over the car. This was hard to avoid though, some thought, easy to prevent. As the problem grew, many advocated for steel cars, in hopes that fewer lives—and less mail—would be lost. Not only was steel less likely to catch fire, it was also much stronger and was less likely to damaged in a wreck. In 1853, a train carrying mail in a freight car caught fire in the night, en route west from New York. There was scarcely any mail to speak of after the blaze, which incinerated many business documents, including invoices, drafts, and acceptances. Because of the speed of the train, shouts to the engineer warning of the fire were made in vain. The wind caused by the train also fanned the flame, causing massive destruction before the fire was noticed by the brakeman.2 Other such instances helped push railroad companies into building steel cars. Suggestions were made to shift to some kind of fireproof material in car construction.3 Although the most commonly suggested material was steel, some suggested fireproof wood. The argument was made that, “a mail car with the floor and framing built up of channel-iron and angles, and with sides and roof of sheet steel, would not only be proof against absolute loss by collision, but would of course be completely fireproof.”4 By 1922, 53.9% of cars had steel under-frames or were made entirely of steel.5 Even though steel was undoubtedly safer than wood, railroad companies, which owned the actual cars, continued to produce and use wooden cars because it was less expensive than shifting to a fireproof alternative.6



The obvious peril caused by wrecks and fires was added to by the fear and very real chance of train robberies. Mail cars carried registered mail, which meant they often transported large amounts of money and valuables from one end of the line to the other. The Railway Mail Service was so highly regarded and trusted that in the late 19th century, they were trusted with a few massive shipments of gold from California to Washington, D.C. or New York City. While Railway Post Office clerks were armed with .38 caliber revolvers, the allure of riches was strong enough for some to attempt robbery of the mail car. While many mail clerks never experienced a traumatic robbery, the chance was still imminent and frightening. In 1892, the Rio Grande mail robbers were sent before a U.S. Circuit Court. They were accused of robbing the United States Mail of $3,000. These men were well known as the biggest crooks in the West. There were suspicions of other unlawful activities on the part of the same robbers. Additionally, the story was sensationalized throughout the trial, as everyone involved in the situation had stories they wished to tell. All of the evidence that could possibly be used against these men was brought up, creating romanticized, over-the-top stories that further dramatized this incident. The robbers walked into the court room in their “rough costumes, slouch hats and high-heel boots….[they had a] pronounced swagger, [and an] air of indifference.1 Descriptions like this only made the story more appealing to the public. An armed robbery occurred in Colorado around that same time and place. The criminals stole $3,600 from passengers on the Rio Grande train No. 4. The gang of robbers had at least seven rifles with which they used to force the engineer to stop the train. The mail car was broken into but the Express Manager used his weapon effectively, stopping theft from the RPO car. Horses were spotted near the scene, ready for an escape.2 This type of robbery was common, with obvious forethought and immense planning on the part of the criminals. Armed robberies were not exclusive to the West, however. In 1891, a train car about ten miles from Birmingham, Alabama, was victim to an incident. One of the robbers held up the engineer in order to make him stop the train. One of his accomplices was responsible for taking care of the clerk in the Railway Post Office Car. He was met with some resistance by R.P. Hughes, the mail agent. Hughes backed down when he sustained a bullet through his clothing. While there were two bags of registered packages, one bound for New York, the other for Atlanta, the criminals only took the former. The packages were found 300 yards away, the contents taken from 85 of them. One that contained no money was discarded. A $1,000 reward was placed for the robbers as was typical of the time period.3 Seemingly “professional” criminals were not the only culprits in this type of action. John R. Griffith, of Fresno, California, was a crew member on the whaling ship, the Northern Light. He wrote a letter admitting to a $7,000 robbery and mail rifling, as well as the murder of some passengers and an engineer during that robbery. He claimed to be in cohorts with two accomplices. Griffith accused one of these accomplices of setting the shipper where he worked on fire the previous month. He said John P. West set the ship ablaze in order to make an escape from the crime he committed on the train. Even though Griffith admitted to his crime, he was not immediately caught because his ship left for a cruise of the North Pacific before he was apprehended.4

Sadly, there were some instances of postal employees stealing the contents of the mail. One messenger between a local post office in Middletown, Ohio and its railroad station was convicted of stealing a mail bag containing $4,000.5 Other instances include a clerk who was convicted of stealing a letter with the equivalent value of $4.50. That clerk was arrested by post office inspectors upon exiting the train. He had worked in the postal service for 14 years.6 Perhaps the most famous instance of mail car robbery was perpetrated in 1923 by the DeAutremont brothers, Hugh, Ray, and Roy. The RPO car they were trying to rob was destroyed when they used too much dynamite in their effort to enter the car. One of the reasons these mail cars were so attractive to robbers was that they often carried millions of dollars of gold across the country. A specially chosen group of clerks, escorted by Treasury Agents, carried $20,000,000 in gold from California to Washington, D.C. in 1892. This gold was all being moved to the treasury department from the sub-treasury because the War Department was concerned about its wellbeing so close to the sea coast. Another $100,000,000 in gold was also transported from the sub-treasury by Railway Mail later in 1892. While the transportation might have been necessary, it also caused major security concerns for the clerks aboard the trains. Great measures of secrecy were taken when loading and transporting the gold. Only a few people had knowledge of the exact route the train took from California to the East.7 And in at least one instance, armed marines were added to help guard the train cars. Clerks who helped prevent robberies, were sometimes rewarded by insurance companies. Earl Boothman and Guy O’Hearn were awarded $1,000 each after they stopped a robbery in 1939.8 Just as in the trial of Rio Grande Robbers, where the story was embellished and sensationalized, many dangerous run-ins ended up being romanticized in popular culture. The first motion picture, “Great Train Robbery”, included a mail car robbery. Other movies followed, including “The Great Mail Robbery”, which was the fictional story of the search and chase for a mail robber. The romance of the rails, combined with the allure of riches, led to intriguing stories for mainstream audiences.


“A lot of times we couldn’t even get the doors open, because the door would be frozen between stops. And normally we would put some salt, you know, between the doors, so we could open them. Sometimes we couldn’t get it open.” —Charles Patton of Hillsboro, Alabama There were certain hazards that Railway Post Office clerks had no control over. Inclement weather could strike at any moment and cause washed-out or snow-covered tracks. Flooded tracks could stop the mail for days at a time, resulting in delays in areas otherwise unaffected by the problem. Because mail on any given train could be en route to anywhere in the country, not just a stop on that line, bad weather caused mail delays everywhere. In 1899, an immense snow storm throughout New York state caused mails from the South and West to be greatly delayed. Further delays were a problem as desire to deliver the mail as swiftly as possible led to mixing mail bags. Days after the snow had stopped, trains entering Buffalo were still two or three hours late. Regardless of these problems, mail leaving the area was still dispatched successfully and on time.(1) Even in times when the weather wasn’t stopping the train, RPO clerks still had to endure some pretty uncomfortable conditions. While the cars were supposed to be heated in the winter through steam pipes, these frequently did not work. Oftentimes the temperature in the car directly reflected the temperature outside. This meant freezing cold in the winter and stifling heat in the summer. “It was awful hot in the summertime, cause again, we didn’t have air and after the car would be sitting there in the sun all day, that metal car, it was pretty hot.” —Edward West of Soddy Daisy, Tennessee



Railway Post Office Clerks at Work

Railway Post Office Clerks at Work

Description: This is an image of Railway Post Office clerks at work sorting mail inside the tight quarters of an RPO car. A registered mail pouch key can be seen hanging from the belt of the clerk on the far left. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1930 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Description: This is an image of Railway Post Office clerks at work sorting mail inside the tight quarters of an RPO car. A registered mail pouch key can be seen hanging from the belt of the clerk on the far left. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1930 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Postcard of wreck of the Delaware and Hudson train Date: September 4, 1908 Object number: A.2009-48 Medium: paper; photo-emulsion Description: Wreckage of a Delaware & Hudson railway train shown on a photographic postcard. The Railway Post Office car is on its side between the baggage and passenger cars. The wreck of this southbound Delaware & Hudson train occurred on September 3, 1908 when it left the tracks east of Sidney, New York. The fireman and engineer were injured as the engine, tender and mail car went down the bank. The Railway Mail Service clerks were not seriously injured in the accident. In early train wreck imagery, X’s were used to indicate where injured people were found following the wreck. That may be what the x’s indicate. Place: United States of America, New York Credit line: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographer: Phelps Repository: National Postal Museum

Wreck of the Southern Train Date: August 15, 1930 Object number: A.2009-47 Medium: paper; photo-emulsion Description: Wreckage of a Southern railway train that crashed after striking a cow late at night near Chappels, South Carolina. The locomotive, two mail coaches and a Pullman passenger car were among the most heavily damaged cars. No passengers were injured, but the train’s engineer and firemen were killed and the Railway Post Office clerks George Mulligan and D.A. Shealy of Columbia, South Carolina, were injured when tossed about in the mail car. Railroad companies usually placed the Railway Mail Service cars between the tender and rest of the train in order to protect passengers during train wrecks. As a result the railway mail cars, and the clerks aboard them, were at greater risk in accidents. Photographer: Unknown Place: United States of America South Carolina Credit line: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographer: Unknown Repository: National Postal Museum


Railway Mail Service Clerks in Kansas City, Missouri

Post Card of Wrecked Train Near Beitner, Michigan

Wreck of the Boston and Maine Train #302

Date: c. 1910 Object number: A.2009-40 Medium: paper; photo-emulsion Description: A group of thirteen unidentified postal employees pose with mail sacks at a back entrance to the old Kansas City, Missouri, post office. Most of the clerks were part of the Post Office Department’s Railway Mail Service (RMS). Unlike Railway Post Office (RPO) clerks who sorted mail on board moving trains, these RMS clerks worked to move and process mail going onto or coming off of RPO cars. Photographer: Unknown Place: United States of America Missouri Credit line: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographer: Unknown Repository: National Postal Museum

Date: August 20, 1919 Object number: A.2009-45 Medium: Postcard stock; photo-emulsion Description: Wreckage of a passenger and freight train that collided head-on on the Pere Marquette Railroad near Beitner, Michigan on August 20, 1919. Among those killed in the wreck were Railway Post Office clerk Frank Cushman and five railroad employees. Three railroad employees and 34 passengers were injured in the wreck that occurred after the freight train crew proceeded on the line instead of transferring onto another line near Beitner. Photographer: Unknown Place: Michigan United States of America Credit line: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographic Collection Photographer: Unknown Repository: National Postal Museum

Date: November 13, 1954 Object number: A.2009-49 Medium: paper; photo-emulsion Description: Wreckage of Boston & Maine train #302, the Red Wing, just outside the Nashua, New Hampshire train station. The train had been traveling at a high rate of speed and derailed on a curve entering the station. The locomotives derailed, hitting freight cars on an adjacent siding as they moved. A female passenger was killed, and 53 others injured in the wreck. Among the injured was one of the Railway Post Office clerks, who was pinned under tables and furnishings in the mail car. That car, visible in the center of the photograph, landed on its roof. Photographer: Unknown Place: United States of America New Hampshire See more items in: National Postal Museum Collection Credit line: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographer: Unknown Repository: National Postal Museum

Owney Description: Owney was a stray dog who wandered into the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. The clerks let him stay the night, and he fell asleep on a pile of empty mailbags. Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and began to follow them, first onto mail wagons and then onto mail trains. Owney began to ride with the bags on Railway Post Office (RPO) train cars across the state, and then the country. The RPO clerks adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot, marking his travels by placing medals and tags from his stops on his collar. Creator/Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: unknown Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1895 Collection: Owney Collection Repository: National Postal Museum Accession number: A.2008-42

Wreck of the Northern Fast Mail train at Wolf Point, Montana, 1934 Description: This is a postcard that shows the wreck of a Fast Mail train on the Great Northern line. The wreck occurred near Wolf Point, Montana in 1934. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Postcard Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1934 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

RPO Clerk in Mail Car

Railway Post Office Loading Area

Description: A Railway Post Office clerk is photographed holding a mail pouch and leaning out of a Baltimore & Ohio railroad car next to the car’s mail exchange arm, as if waiting to make a mail exchange. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1913 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Description: This is an image of sacks of mail being prepared for loading onto a Railway Post Office car. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1925 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Railway Post Office Mascot Owney and Mail Carrier Description: Owney was a mongrel dog who became the mascot of the Railway Mail Service in the 1890s. He traveled on mail trains all through the United States and even made a trip around the world on mail steamers. He is shown here posed with an unidentified mail carrier. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1895 Collection: Owney Collection Repository: National Postal Museum


Cramped RPO Clerks

Postmaster Attaching Mailbag

a Railway Post Office Car

Clerks Transferring Mail Sacks

Medium: paper; photo-emulsion Description: Example of how cramped mail cars could become. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Place: United States of America Repository: National Postal Museum

Medium: Postcard stock; photo-emulsion Description: Postmasters climbed up steps to reach the top of the mail crane. If they did not attach the mailbag to both crane arms, a proper “on-the-fly” catch could not be made. Photographer: Unknown Place: United States of America Credit line: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Repository: National Postal Museum

Description: This is an interior view of a Railway Post Office car. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1905 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Description: Clerks at an unidentified post office transfer mail sacks from a Railway Post Office train loading dock down shoots that will carry the mail sacks down to the post office’s sorting tables. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1920 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Loading Mail onto Railway Post Office Car

U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail During WWII

Description: This is an image of sacks of mail being loaded onto a Railway Post Office (RPO) car. The metal RPO mail exchange arm can clearly be seen on the car door. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1925 Collection: U.S. Railway Mail Service Repository: National Postal Museum

Description: U.S. troops almost buried by parcels do their best to handle that year’s holiday mail. Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: c. 1944 Repository: National Postal Museum Collection: U.S. Military Mail


Galbraith’s railway mail service maps, Kansas. Creator: Galbraith, Frank H. Created/published: Chicago, 1897, c 1898. Description: Eight large-scale pictorial maps of mid western states showing routes and post offices of the Railway Mail Service. Designed by Chicago railway mail clerk Frank H. Galbraith to help employees of the Railway Mail Service quickly locate counties and post offices. The maps were rented for practicing or prospective workers who numbered over 6,000 and traveled over a million miles a year on the rails sorting mail. A printed title cartouche accompanied by a list of counties for each of the states by McEwen Map Company of Chicago is pasted on the maps. Repository: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA

History of the Service 1 Long, Bryant Alden, and William Jefferson Dennis, “Mail by Rail,” Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., New York, p. 2. The Creation 1832–1864 1 US Post Office Department, History of the Railway Mail Service, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1885), p. 28. 2 US Post Office Department, History of the Railway Mail Service, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1885), p. 41. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 Stevens, Walter Barlow, “Missouri, the Center State, Volume 1: 1821-1915,” Chicago-St. Joseph, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915, p. 138. A Fast Start 1864–1875 1 Romanski, Fred J. “The “Fast Mail”: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service.” Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985. 6 Romanski, Fred J. “The “Fast Mail”: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service.” Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6. 7 Ibid. 8 Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985. 9 Romanski, Fred J. “The “Fast Mail”: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service.” Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6. 10 Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985. 11 Ibid. 12 Romanski, Fred J. “The “Fast Mail”: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service.” Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6. 13 Ibid. Expansion and Turmoil 1876–1920 1 “Braving the Rails: U.S. Railway Mail Clerks from 1890-1905.” NPC Newsletter, Volume 1, #3, October-December, 1989, pp. 19-36, National Philatelic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

bibliography 2 Post Office Department Parcel Post Regulations. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1913). 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 “Braving the Rails: U.S. Railway Mail Clerks from 1890-1905.” NPC Newsletter, Volume 1, #3, October-December, 1989, pp. 19-36, National Philatelic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 6 Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid. Race Relations 1 “They Talk Strike” in The Atlanta Constitution 1881; Dec. 14, 1891 p. 5 From Proquest Historical Newspapers 2 “The Negro and the New Freedom: Fighting Wilsonian Segregation” by Nancy Weiss from The Political Science Quarterly, Vol 84, No 1 p. 64 3 Joseph Daniels, The Cabinet Diaries of Joseph Daniels, 1913-1921, ed. E. David Cronon. Lincoln, Nebraska 1963 p. 32-33 4 Weiss, 63 5 “Mail Car Race Problem” from NYT May 25, 1913 6 National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, “History of the NAPFE” 7 Ibid. 8 “Like Banquo’s Ghost, It Will Not Down: The Race Question and the American Railroad Brotherhoods 1880-1920” by Erin Arnesen, The American Historical Review, Vol 99, No 5 (Dec. 1994) p. 1628. 9 NAPFE 10 “Court Forbids Railway Mail to Bar Negroes” from Herald Tribune Bureau, 1944. 11 Chastain, Albert Osborne. Interview. 02/2009. Print. Decades of Change, 1920s–1950s


1 “Eisenhower Presidential Chronology.” U.S. National Park Service—Experience Your America. Web. 27 July 2009. <>. 2 Ibid. World War II 1 National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 2 Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985. 3 National Archives and Records Administration 4 Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. Camaraderie 1 “Newsletters” NARA, RG 28, Entry 120, passim. Wrecks 1 Nancy Pope, “Braving the Mails: U.S. Railway Mail Clerks from 1890-1905” NPC Newsletter,/1 no. 3 (October-December, 1989) 19-36. National Philatelic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 2 Bryant A. Long, Mail by Rail: The Story of the Postal Transportation System (New York: Simmons-Boardman, 1951), 138. 3 Bryant A. Long, Mail by Rail: The Story of the Postal Transportation System (New York: Simmons-Boardman, 1951), 139. Fires 1 Nancy Pope, “Braving the Mails: U.S. Railway Mail Clerks from 1890-1905” NPC Newsletter,/1 no. 3 (October-December, 1989) 19-36. National Philatelic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 2 The New York Daily News, October 6, 1853, p. 8. 3 Scientific American, May 31, 1902, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 22 p. 376. 4 Ibid. 5 Annual Report of the PMG 1922. 6 Pope, 19-36. Robbery 1 “Train Robbers on Trial,” New York Times, 13 January 1892. 2 “Colorado Train Robbers,” New York Times, 2 September 1891. 3 “Train Robber in Alabama,” New York Times, 1 April 1892. 4 “Confessed Robbery and Murder,” New York Times, 4 April 1892. 5 NARA RG 28, Entry 120, Boston Massachusetts, January 22, 1944. 6 Unidentified Newspaper clipping. NARA RG 28, Entry 120, Pittsburgh, PA: May 13, 1939. 7 “A Veritable Treasure Train,” Washington Post, 6 August 1892. 8 Bryant A. Long, Mail by Rail: The Story of the Postal Transportation System (New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Company, 1951), 8. Weather 1 “Streets Piled with Snow,” New York Times, 16 February 1899, 3.

Mail by Rail  
Mail by Rail  

An Exhibition book for the Smithsonian's Mail by Rail Exhibit.