Railway Mail Service and National Train Day


By Nancy Pope, Curator and Historian

The National Postal Museum has joined numerous organizations across the country in celebration of National Train Day on May 8. The selected date commemorates the completion of the U.S. transcontinental railroad in 1869. As visitors to the museum know, trains played a critical part in America’s postal history. From 1864-1977, the Railway Mail Service used clerks on board moving trains to sort and process mail, speeding delivery.

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RPO Clerks hard at work sorting mail

In recognition of the history of this critical service, the National Postal Museum has launched a website devoted to America’s Railway Post Office (RPO) clerks. As visitors to the museum and its website know, the work these clerks undertook was among the hardest, and certainly the most dangerous, in the postal system. The years between 1880-1920 were especially dangerous for RPO clerks, and a many of them were seriously injured, or lost their lives, in train wrecks.

One such wreck occurred in the early morning hours of May 7, 1893 in Lafayette, Indiana. Shortly before 2 am that morning, an eastbound passenger train crashed into Big Four train station in Lafayette. The crash killed ten people, including three mail clerks on the train (A.P. Chadwick, Jesse Long, and E.E. Myers), as well as J. Lennon, a mail wagon driver who was waiting at the station to pick up the mail and drive it to the post office. Three other mail clerks were injured in the crash. Faulty air brakes were blamed for the tragedy. The damage was greatest on the first vehicles of the train, the engine, baggage car and the two postal cars. Traditionally railway companies placed postal cars in the front portion of the train for just such incidents, to lessen the risk in accidents to passenger traffic. That tradition, however, was one reason why the job was so dangerous for postal clerks.

The National Postal Museum hopes you will join us in celebrating not only National Train Day, but the employees of the Railway Mail Service as well. The museum wishes to thank and congratulate these individuals for their work.

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Inside a Railway Post Office car at the National Postal Museum

Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.