Railway Mail Crane

Object Spotlight
refer to caption

Clerks worked hard to sort and prepare mail for each stop along the way.

refer to caption
Mail crane on display at the National Postal Museum

Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. A critical component of the service was the mail exchange made between moving trains and small towns. This tricky and potentially deadly component, known as “mail on–the–fly,” allowed mail to be exchanged between Railway Post Office (RPO) cars and towns too small to rate trains stops.

These mail exchanges began in the mid 1860s. At first engineers slowed trains to a crawl so clerks could exchange the mail by hand. This inefficient system was replaced by track side cranes on which postmasters suspended mail pouches ready for pickup. The first trackside Railway Mail Service cranes were wooden, F-shaped mechanisms. They were soon replaced by a simple but more durable steel hook and crane. Standing at an average of just over ten feet in height, these iron cranes were common slights along U.S. railway lines.

As the train approached, a RPO clerk prepared the catcher arm, which would then snatch the incoming mail pouch in the blink of an eye. The iron arms of the crane would pop open, releasing the pouch to the RPO car. At the same time, the clerk kicked the outgoing pouch out of the car. The special catcher pouches used in the service had metal rings at each end to attach to mail cranes.

U.S. Mail sturdy bag
Mailbags used with the crane had to be strong enough to withstand being slammed by the train’s mail catcher without bursting open.

A successful on–the–fly exchange depended on many factors, including the clerks’ experience, strong mail pouches that would not burst open when snatched by a fast-moving iron crane or kicked off a moving train, postmasters who attached the pouches correctly and well maintained equipment that worked as expected.

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. Not all swaps ended well. A clerk who did not pay sufficient attention to the job ran the risk of being struck and killed.

The above media is provided by  YouTube (Privacy Policy, Terms of Service)

Short, silent film demonstrating how "mail on–the–fly" worked. The original film is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

[Silent video]

Retrieving mail from the crane was only one half of the job. As many clerks learned, kicking the mail pouch out could be just as difficult. One clerk booted an outgoing pouch with so much force that he sent it flying through the railroad terminal window. The clerk who did not kick hard enough watched helplessly as the pouch was sucked under the train and mail torn to shreds by the train’s wheels. Clerks had a name for that. They called it a snowstorm.

The above media is provided by  YouTube (Privacy Policy, Terms of Service)

Filmed in 1993, this 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.

00:14

the engineer would give you a certain

00:17

whistle that let you know that the local

00:20

is coming up listen for the wrong

00:22

whistle on the train

00:34

some people may think of this as

00:37

railroad employees but that's not true

00:39

because we had to take a a stiff

00:42

competitive exam that the post office

00:45

put out for railway postal clerks RPO

00:47

clerks and if we passed it we we got the

00:52

job you know you had a no year snowed

00:54

you had to know it ninety seven percent

00:57

correct I heard it said that any RPO

01:01

clerk that was worth his salt was good

01:03

for ten thousand post offices in his

01:06

distribution area one one or the other

01:09

direction of his distribution he would

01:11

have to have a working knowledge of ten

01:13

thousand post op

01:26

well the doorman had a call in each

01:29

pouch as they came in well he he cut he

01:33

cut it short in other words he would say

01:35

something like Florida dies with a -

01:39

from chick said st. Albans and mine

01:41

closed st. Albans with Whitesville 76

01:44

pound on New York and Washington dead

01:45

and dead going on further you've got

01:47

Hagar's and Roanoke that Waynesboro jack

01:49

and town turbine and Ronceverte the dot

01:51

and polka ash Lou Welch and Jake and

01:54

Jones from there on you Clifton Forge

01:57

you get rich from the Clifton Forge time

02:11

you just throw the name out or the

02:15

address out and everybody as we're still

02:17

working somebody gonna try to figure it

02:19

out

02:19

and so this was addressed to mr. hot dog

02:22

Washington DC and so we were all cured

02:26

mr. hot dog because we broke the meal

02:29

down and so finally before the trip was

02:33

out somebody said oh that's Chief

02:35

Justice frankfurter and so we said it in

02:38

the chief justice that's what we decided

02:40

it was it was somebody wrote on him mr.

02:42

hot dog

02:51

most of the fellas I'd say 99% of them

02:55

were all for one and one for all because

02:59

anybody that was stuck if somebody else

03:03

goes up on his mail he'd go and help the

03:05

fellow that was stuck because nobody sat

03:06

down and rested or laid to sleep or

03:10

anything else unless everybody was up

03:12

nobody stopped to eat until anybody

03:14

everybody could eat and it was just that

03:16

I help you you help me to her done 1977

03:22

that was the last train that ever rode

03:26

the working mail train that ever rode

03:28

the rails it was a glorious affair full

03:32

of tears and all like that but I think

03:34

if the trains were running today I would

03:37

still be on and I'm sure some of the

03:39

other because we were her dedicated we

03:41

loved that job but that was the last run

03:44

and that's to say it story

By the 1870s, on–the–fly exchanges helped position Railway Mail Service as the backbone of the nation’s postal system where it remained into the 1930s. The service began a steady decline in the late 1940s as airline and automobile passenger traffic grew. By 1948 there were only 794 RPO lines still in operation. In 1962, the number was down to 262.  By 1971, only thirty trains were still using railway mail cranes in the United States. On May 1 of that year, AMTRAK (America, travel, and track) began operations and after just over a century of service, on–the–fly mail exchanges came to an end.

References

Long, Bryant Alden. Mail by Rail, New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation, 1951.

Romanski, Fred J. “The Fast Mail: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service,”Prologue Magazine, Fall 2005, Volume 37, #3, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Culbreth, Ken. The Railway Mail Clerk and the Highway Office, Trafford Publishing, 2007

Learn more

Railway Mail Service, National Postal Museum research article

The Railway Mail Service Library

Written by Nancy A. Pope

Additional Imagery

photo of Postmaster and mail on–the–fly
Postmaster and mail on–the–fly

four clerks worked hard to sort and prepare mail for each stop along the way
Clerks worked hard to sort and prepare mail for each stop along the way.