The Highway Post Office

Development of the Highway Post Office

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Interior of Highway Post Office bus #1 including table, pigeon holes and bag racks.

The 1941 White Highway Post Office bus was not the first attempt at sorting mail while moving on city streets. Before Highway Post Office buses were used, small Collection and Distribution Wagons began trolling Washington D.C. and New York City in 1889 and were central to bringing bags of processed mail to local post offices. They gathered mail from collection boxes, canceled the mail en route and took bags of mail to trains to be dispersed across the country. These wagons were short lived. New York City’s wagon system only lasted ten months before it was replaced by the underground pneumatic tube system. This style of service was used again later, this time in trolleys beginning in St. Louis, Missouri and spreading to a number of cities across the United States, such as New York, Chicago, and of course one city where trollies remain famous – San Francisco. In 1891 special trolley cars were built so clerks could sort mail as the units moved from point to point. Since cars picked up passengers as well as dropped off mail, the relationship cause conflicts. The passengers hated waiting for mail to be delivered and the clerks hated having to stop and pick up passengers. By 1899, the trolley experiment was deemed a failure and new ideas were contemplated. The first attempt at motorized Highway Post Office-style service occurred in 1925 in Chicago. The Chicago and Air Mail Field Motor Truck service collected mail from the main post office then picked up pouches from the Railroad Post Offices and sorted that mail while traveling to the airport in Haywood, Illinois. This service only last for a few years before other methods were utilized.(1)

In the period between these varied attempts at moving and processing mail, and the beginning of the Highway Post Office (HPO), the Post Office Department continued to rely on the Railway Mail Service (RMS) for processing and transporting mail. But as trains began to move away from rural areas, some tried to find a way to replace that service. In California, James F. Cooper saw the need and attempted to establish a mail-processing bus route with the help of his branch of the Railroad Mail Association (RMA). The resolution was supported by other RMAs but the Post Office did not see the merit of such a service on a national level. Some states, such as Florida, Missouri, and Ohio, funded buses and trucks to run such routes, but they were a very small minority. It was not until 1932 that there was a first attempt to create such a service through legislation.

The steady limitations of the railroads demonstrated to Postmaster General Walter Brown how current transportation methods were slowing mail service. Brown leaned on Congress for legislation that would help compensate for the loss of the railroad lines. On January 19, 1932, Pennsylvania Representative Melville Kelly introduced H.R. 8025 to provide funds for the transportation and distribution of mail on a motor-vehicle route. It stated “that all motor vehicle transportation companies are hereby required to transport such mail matter as may be offered for transport by the United States in the manner, under the condition, and with the service prescribed by the Postmaster General.”(2) H.R. 8025 would have made it legal for the Post Office to require any company “to transport such mail matter.”(3) Some feared that the result of this resolution could hurt private businesses, possibly making moving the mail a priority over other goods. Because of such fears, the legislation failed.

Between 1932 and 1940, advocates of change continued to lobby for the creation of a service that would fill the gaps appearing from the loss of railroads. House Joint Resolution, #663, was pocket vetoed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1938 on the recommendation of Postmaster General James Farley. H.J. Res 663 was established “to provide for the operation of the Peru and Indianapolis Railway Post Office by motor vehicle over the public highway.”(4) Farley suggested that the bill was flawed because the Postmaster General would have no authority to determine which routes would be created. Success finally came on May 19, 1939, when Ohio representative Martin L. Sweeney introduced House Resolution 6424. This bill gave the Postmaster General the authority to not only establish routes where railroad facilities were not available, but also the ability to design and equip the vehicles for distribution. The bill was approved on August 5th, 1939 and later it was signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 11, 1940.(5)

In September 1940, the Frank C. Walker, the new Postmaster General, enacted Postmaster General Order 14483, which called for the creation of a special committee that would study the creation and implementation of the act. The committee was headed by J.D. Hardy, General Superintendent of Railway Mail Service and comprised of postal officials from the Railway Mail and Motor Vehicle service: N.G. Maxson, E.R. Jones, A.G. Biedenweg, and F.M. Williams. These five men were to report and make their recommendation to Smith W. Purdum, the 2nd Assistant Postmaster General and man in charge of postal transportation. The committee studied how buses could be converted to allow clerks to process mail and ensure mail pick-ups and drops at rural post offices much like the RMS did.

In response to a bid request, automotive companies proposed buses specifically designed for the task. Of the hundreds of proposals submitted, three companies were selected. Postal officials decided that each bus would be tested on a different route. The first style was a conventional passenger bus with underfloor equipped with an engine in the rear. This was a Mack International pusher-engine style of bus that would run on the San Francisco to Pacific Grove route in California. The second bus came from International Harvester and was a tractor-trailer style vehicle. This bus was selected for the 151.8 mile trip between Peru and Indianapolis, Indiana. The third and final selection was a conventional passenger bus with a pancake-type engine. It was made by the White Motor Company and would operate on the 148 mile route between Washington D.C. and Harrisonburg, Virginia. The three different designs were selected so the Department could determine which would be the most effective and the best fit for the Post Office, if the service was a success and additional buses were to be ordered. Walker authorized the purchase of these three vehicles in 1940 for $37,664.(6) Throughout the first few years of the HPO routes, it was deemed that the White bus was the most effective for a number of reasons. It offered the best gas mileage at seven miles per gallon. It was a smooth ride, which let the clerks work steadily and not have to fear being tossed around, and kept them in easy communication with the driver. The White Motor Company won the contract and would go on to produce more buses for the Highway Post Office than any other company.(7)

The committee was also tasked with determining the highest priority routes. They requested help from postmasters and railway officials to determine those routes. Chairman Hardy sent his RMS Divisional Superintendents specific qualifications for the best locations, including:

  1. That the proposed routes be reasonably free from severe climatic conditions, such as high altitudes, or within the snow-belt
  2. That the terrain be fairly level. In no case should hill grades exceed 6%
  3. That routes be limited to no more than 150 miles in length
  4. That a sufficient number of fair-sized post offices be located along the route
  5. That, if possible, the designated routes should operate on points between which RPO trains were recently, or scheduled to be, withdrawn

Hardy also stipulated that the routes should be under constant supervision and that there be government-operated motor vehicle garages placed on the routes to service and house trucks when needed. Approximately 200 possible routes were submitted, and the committee narrowed them down to the three routes that would allow mail to get to its destination swiftly and smoothly. They looked at the ability to connect with RMS lines along the route, the ability to provide distribution to local post offices, and the ability to get mail to Star Route contractors. The committee also considered if road conditions were suitable for year-round travel and if bridges could handle loads up to 27,000 lbs.

Aware of the constant need to save money, the committee looked for ways to eliminate Star Route contract service on a route. Another consideration was garage space rental rates on various routes. They finally decided the three winning routes: Washington, DC to Harrisonburg, Virginia; Peru, Indiana to Indianapolis, Indiana, and San Francisco to Pacific Grove, California. For practical and political reasons, the Washington-Harrisonburg route was selected for the first trip. It was determined that this route would have daily round trips, six days a week. On January 18, 1941, Postmaster General Walker sent out a press release for local papers stating that the first route would be inaugurated on Feb 10, 1941, from Washington DC to Harrisonburg VA by way of Middleburg, The Plains, and Strasburg. He continued by outlining the services that the bus would provide. “This route will provide swift and efficient mail service to three first-class, six second-class, ten third-class and fourteen four-class post offices along the line of the route.”(8) The new service would offer faster mail service to approximately 125,000 residents of multiple counties.

  • 1) Jerry, Jarnick. A Chronological History of the Highway Post Office. 1955.
  • 2) Bruns, James H. The First Highway Post Office: Introduction of Highway Post Office Service Washington D.C./ Harrisonburg, Virginia. Mobile Post Office Society, 1985.
  • 3) Ibid, Bruns
  • 4) "75th Calendars of the United States House of Representatives and the History of Legislation." // 1941. Accessed July 15, 2015.
  • 5) "76th Calendars of the United States House of Representatives and the History of Legislation." // 1941. Accessed July 15, 2015.
  • 6) Post Office Department of United States. 1941. Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30 1941. Washington D.C.: United States Printing Offices.
  • 7) Post Office Department of the United States. [Highway Post Office Vehicle Records]. Washington D.C. National Archives, Record Group 20, Box 1, Entry 437: Record of HPO Vehicles 1941- 1956 Vehicles 1- 113.
  • 8) Post Office Department of United States. [Walker’s HPO Press Release]. Washington D.C., National Archives, Record Group 28, Entry Number UD- 56 Record of HPO 1941-1967, Box 4. January 18, 1941.