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Mail by Rail

July 30, 1993 — Permanent

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photo of clerks working in Railway postal car
Clerks working in Railway postal car, cir. 1935

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. 

view inside a mail car on display at the museum

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 of a postal worker getting mail from the catcher arm


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. 

photo of a train collision

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. 

reward poster for train hold-up and murder


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

photo of a 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.

postal workers standing in front of a mail car with Owney

Owney, Mascot of the Railway Mail Service

Owney was a scruffy mutt who was adopted by postal workers in the Albany, New York, post office in the late 1880s. 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.