DCSIMG

Braving the Rails

From the start of the Railway Mail Service in America in 1832, postal clerks who rode with the mail did so under life-threatening conditions. Ever present were the dual dangers of robberies and wrecks.

Railway Mail Service clerks posing beside a Railway Mail Service car
Railway Mail Service clerks were highly skilled and expected to sort six hundred pieces of mail per hour in cramped conditions on moving trains.
Railway Mail Service clerks were highly skilled and expected to sort six hundred pieces of mail per hour in cramped conditions on moving trains.

Small fortunes transported in mail cars tempted thieves like Jesse James and the DeAutremont brothers to ambush trains in order to get rich quick. Railway robberies often resulted in explosions, derailments, injuries and deaths.

Although some train wrecks were the work of evildoers, most were accidents. Between 1890 and 1905, as many as seven thousand wrecks resulted in the deaths of one hundred and forty-three postal clerks. At least three thousand more were injured.

A Robbery Gone Awry

In 1923, Hugh, Ray and Roy DeAutremont ambushed a mail train in the mountains of southern Oregon, but the robbery didn’t go as planned. Too much dynamite incinerated the mail car and everything in it, including the postal clerk. The brakeman, engineer and fireman were also killed during the hold-up, and the forty thousand dollars the brothers had hoped to steal was nothing more than an unfounded rumor. After a worldwide manhunt, the bandits were captured in 1927.

Detonator used by DeAutremont brothers to blow up a mail car
Detonator used by DeAutremont brothers to blow up a mail car. Made of 5/8 inch thick wood joined with mortice and tenon and flathead screws. The device has a plunger, leather strap handle, two 1 1/8 inch high screws/wing nuts and metal advertising plate on top. The advertising plate cites "DuPont Blasting Machine No. 3, Will Fire 1 to 30 Fuzes" and provides instructions for use.

Reward circular used in the manhunt for the DeAutremont brothers
Reward circular used in the manhunt for the DeAutremont brothers.
Reward circular used in the manhunt for the DeAutremont brothers.

Detonator used by DeAutremont brothers to blow up a mail car. Made of 5/8 inch thick wood joined with mortice and tenon and flathead screws. The device has a plunger, leather strap handle, two 1 1/8 inch high screws/wing nuts and metal advertising plate on top. The advertising plate cites "DuPont Blasting Machine No. 3, Will Fire 1 to 30 Fuzes" and provides instructions for use.

Interestingly, a registered mail receipt fingered the DeAutremonts. The telling paper, signed by Roy, was discovered in a pair of overalls the brothers had intended as a decoy to throw bloodhounds off their trail.

Train Wrecks

U. S. Post Office Department Railway Mail Service (RMS) eagle-style chest badge.
U. S. Post Office Department Railway Mail Service (RMS) eagle-style chest badge.
U. S. Post Office Department Railway Mail Service (RMS) eagle-style chest badge.

From the beginning of the Railway Mail Service in America, the clerks who rode with the mail served under conditions that could be life-threatening. The worst danger was from train wrecks. In order to help protect passengers in the train, mail cars were placed between the locomotive and the passenger cars. As a result, Railway Mail Service clerks often bore the major impact from collisions or explosions.

Wreckage of two trains destroyed in a head-on collision
Wreckage of two trains destroyed in a head-on collision.
Wreckage of two trains destroyed in a head-on collision.

Wrecked train cars in river and along river bank
Wrecked train cars in river and along river bank.
Wrecked train cars in river and along river bank.

Railway officials and reporters inspecting a train wreck
Railway officials and reporters inspecting a train wreck.
Railway officials and reporters inspecting a train wreck

People standing among wreckage of train and collapsed bridge structure
People standing among wreckage of train and collapsed bridge structure.
People standing among wreckage of train and collapsed bridge structure.