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Banner image of Railway Mail Service

Bust of George Armstrong
Bust of George Armstrong
Bust of George Armstrong

Illustration of Fast Mail train.
Illustration of Fast Mail train.
Illustration of Fast Mail train.

History of the Service

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 hasn’t been perfect. Many clerks admit to dropping the bag at least once during their career.





  Hear some former RPO clerks describe the tricky task of making the mail bag exchange:  
 
Joseph E. Beauchemin
mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  
  James Hoffman mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  
  Donald Bresland mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  
  David Foy mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  
  William Maurer mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  
  Maurice Cox mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  
  Kenneth Wilson mp3 link to audio pdf link to transcript  

In September 1875, the Railway Mail Service underwent a new cycle of change with the construction of the first five-car 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 12 to 24 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 bicoastal 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 11 months after the initial send off.(13)

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.

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