“When you are in a mail car and suddenly see all the letters flying around like pigeons, and there are ties and broken rails going past the windows, you can be sure there’s going to be a wreck on your line. And that you will be in it.” —Daniel Moschenross, clerk on Toledo & St. Louis
Train wrecks were a serious problem for all railroad employees, but particularly for Railway Post Office clerks. Because RPO cars were located directly behind the locomotive and tender, mail clerks often took the brunt of the impact in collisions. Wooden cars often ended in fiery blazes or in total destruction. In 1893 the Second Assistant Postmaster General stated to Congress, “The work [of the RPO clerk] is performed in the midst of danger. The cars in which the distribution is made are run in nearly every instance next to the engine, which is the most dangerous position in the train, and they are more liable to be wrecked, burned, or submerged in water when accidents occur than the engine, baggage, express cars, and passenger coaches.” This was obviously detrimental to the workforce, as many were injured and killed. Between 1890 and 1901, there were 6,089 accidents involving trains with full or apartment postal cars. In those same years, 86 clerks were killed and 617 seriously injured. Between 1902 and 1905, there were 1,403 injury-causing accidents. 56 clerks were killed and 381 were seriously injured. According to the same Assistant Postmaster General, “a larger percentage of railway postal clerks are killed and injured annually than all other employees upon trains to which the postal cars are attached.”
The interior of wrecked mail car. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
The exterior of wrecked mail car. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
The deaths suffered by clerks in wrecks were often excruciatingly gruesome. Theodore F. Wedemeyer was involved in a derailment that ended in the mail car completely upside-down off the tracks. The steam dome in the engine burst, sending steam and mud in the direction of the clerks aboard the train. Many, including Wedemeyer endured scalding burns. Just 44 days later, Wedemeyer died in a collision on the Cheyenne & Huntington.(1) Many wrecks ended in complete wreckage and no survivors.
An aerial view of a train wreck from 1913. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Head on collision between Atlanta, Macon, & Montgomery train #15 freight train on 3rd Street crossing Macon, GA, August 14th, 1905.
As clerks became fed up with the large number of casualties and injuries they saw on the job, they began to organize to make a change. The Railway Mail Mutual Benefit Association (MBA) was formed in 1874 and sought to offer low rate life insurance to mail clerks. It offered $2,000 to the beneficiaries of any covered person who died on the job.(2) Additionally, the MBA lobbied for legislation for better wages and improved working conditions.(3) When Congress unexpectedly cut pay on two levels of clerks in 1886, the Brotherhood of Railway Mail Postal Clerks formed to combat the change.
Interior of a wrecked train car.
Men standing on a weekend railroad.
The number of wrecks dropped off significantly as the Twentieth Century progressed. This was mostly due to new technology in train construction. In addition to the advent of steel reinforced cars (see FIRE!), many advancements were made in the first half of the 1900s. These advancements included the double track, heavy rail and ballasts, air brakes, and the automatic block system. All of these changes meant safer trains and RPOs.
Here are more stories of train wrecks, as told by the former clerks who lived to tell about them: