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Moving the Mail : Mail by Rail

Mail by Rail

Clerks working in Railway postal car, cir. 1935

Clerks working in Railway postal car, cir. 1935

Related Video:
arrow Mail By Rail
Mail By Rail filmed in 1993, is the story of the Railway Post Office clerks, as told by four ex RPO clerks, Tom Clifton, Harold Coffman, Winston Lark and Don Shenefelt.

The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. Railway mail service began in 1832, but grew slowly until the Civil War. In 1862, mail was sorted en route, as a train moved between two points. The idea proved to be exceptionally successful, and as the postal service decentralized its operations, it concentrated on sorting much of the growing volume of mail while it was being carried on the nation's rail lines.

This new method of sorting the mail was developed just when railroads began to crisscross the nation on a regular basis. The service grew as railroads came to dominate America from the end of the 19th century through World War II.


Interior of the re-created railway mail car in the Museum's atrium

Inside the Mail Car
Sorting mail on moving trains was one of the greatest innovations introduced by the postal service. Mail previously untouched in bags on train floors was processed as the train sped toward its destination.


Illustration showing a Railway Post Office clerk catching mail on-the-fly.

Railway Post Office trains used a system of mail cranes to exchange mail at stations without stopping. As the train approached, a clerk prepared the catcher arm which would then snatch the incoming mailbag in the blink of an eye. The clerk then booted out the outgoing mailbag. Experienced clerks spoke with pride of making the switch at night with nothing but the curves and feel of the track to warn them of an upcoming catch.


Train wreck site

Train Wrecks
Railway Postal Clerks were considered by many to be the most highly trained postal employees. They also worked under the greatest pressure. In addition to the regular demands of their jobs, they could, without warning, find themselves the victims of train wrecks.


Wanted Poster for railway robbers

Tempted by the small fortunes carried on mail cars in registered mail and other pouches, thieves tried to make quick fortunes robbing trains.


White, red and blue highway post office bus on the road

Highway Post Office Buses
By the 1930s, a significant decline in railroad passenger traffic had caused a subsequent decline in the use of railway trains. To fill the void, the postal service transferred some en route distribution from trains to highway buses. Special covers were designed for the Highway Post Office first trips.


Mail clerks posing in front of a train car. A dog is posed seated inside the car

Owney, Mascot of the Railway Mail Service
Owney was a stray mutt who wandered into the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. The clerks let him stay, and he fell asleep on some mailbags. Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and followed them when they were placed on a Railway Mail Service train.

Related Links:

Railway Mail Service

"The Silk Train" article

Trolley Car Mail exhibit

Photographs Archive

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