A Fast Start, 1864-1875

Encouraged by the Missouri results, postal officials moved the en route mail sorting plan north. During the summer of 1864 Third Assistant Postmaster General A.N. Zevely assigned two special agents to test the practicality of the railway post office. George B. Armstrong, Chicago’s postmaster, was designated to control all states and territories west of the east line of Indiana and south of the Ohio River, while Harrison Park presided over the eastern division.(1)

Refer to caption
Bust of George Armstrong

The first railway postal route came into operation on the Iowa division of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa on August 28, 1864 with clerks, Leonard and Bradley on board. Zevely remained in charge of the fledgling service, while Armstrong was appointed special agent in charge of the service in the West. By the end of 1864, all mail in transit began to be distributed in railroad cars.(2) In 1865, Postmaster General William Denison asked congress to recognize the service and begin attaching funding for the experiment. Armstrong received full supervision of the service in 1869.

As the lines grew and developed, railway post offices continually made changes to further progress and popularize the Railway Mail Service. Two clerks, on average, were assigned to distribute mail in each car, sometimes more on densely occupied routes. Clerks were given schemes showing maps of a state that helped in the memorization of post offices for mail distribution. These were first implemented in 1868 along with checks “to detect errors in processed mail.”(3) The idea of separating mail by states soon became an innovation that helped reduced backups.

To make collecting the mail bag from each station faster without having to stop every time, the Post Office used a mail bag catching device to transfer mail from a stationary pole to a moving train car. The Ward mail bag catcher was first used in 1869.(4) This device consisted of a steel arm affixed to railway post office doors that would then be used to “grab” the mail bag from a fixed crane situated at each post office along the lines. Previously, the mail clerk would extend his arm out the railway post office door to catch the bag leading to frequent missed exchanges and dropped bags. The Ward catcher helped decrease the occurrence of this predicament and allowed trains to move at faster speeds. Despite this improvement, the catcher exchange hasn’t been perfect. Many clerks admit to dropping the bag at least once during their career.

Hear some former RPO clerks describe the tricky task of making the mail bag exchange:

Joseph E. Beauchemin

Joseph E. Beauchemin: On the train, you had to be careful about the soot from the engine because we were the second car back, and I remember now up in Waitsfield, I can’t think of the names now, the, we were going through a subway like on the train, and you had to catch and throw, you know catch the bag, going without stopping. And if you didn’t get it back fast enough you’d lose the bar, the bar would get hit in the building and take it right off, so you had to do it real fast, and I can remember going through down in Boston to New York, down to Mystic, Connecticut, you had to be very careful when you threw the bags off because we never stopped there. You threw the bags off you didn’t hit the people waiting to get on the train, the next train coming up, and sometimes it would roll and go in the water and they’d have to get a hook and go get it, and get the water out because either the guy threw it too early, or you got the signal too late or something.

James Hoffman

James Hoffman: But I never had a clerk in charge get mad at me. Except maybe one time. We were making a run on the Amarillo and Fort Worth and I’d been in the mail service about four months. We had a brand new sub. He hadn’t been in the mail car. And we pulled out of Fort Worth, heading for Amarillo, we had a box of baby chicks for a little town called Rome, where the train does stop. So I put them in the door opposite to where Rome was, and told the sub well we’ll put those off at Dewey, because the southbound train will pick them up, and it stops at Dewey, it’s the local, and he says okay. So we told him what to look for, for a landmark because he had to make a catcher there, and the clerk in charge and I, just a three man crew, the clerk in charge and I told him what landmarks to look for and after a while he says, I see the red barn. Okay, now you throw yours off and then you’ll catch the bag. Okay. I went back to work. I heard a bang bang when he caught the bag of mail. And I went back there to get it. And I noticed over there near the door, the box of baby chicks wasn’t there. I went over to the other door where he just caught the bag of mail and looked out, and all I saw was feathers. He had kicked the box of 25 baby chicks out the door. I doubt if any of them survived. All I saw was yellow feathers [laughs]. I went back to the clerk in charge and I says, you’re not going to like this. What, as I handed him the mail from the bag. The baby chicks are no more. What do you mean?! He kicked them off when he threw the bag of mail off. I thought you told him to take them to Rome! I says, I did! You should have been back there supervising him [laughs]. I think those were the only harsh words I ever heard in the 27 years I served [laughs].

Donald Bresland

Donald Bresland: And I worked on what they call the Concord and Claremont RPOs, it was a small line, it was a one man job. You first get on there you didn’t know... where the next station was, anything like that. You had to be working all the time and watching out for the next stations and when you slowed down you’d know you were coming to the station. So a lot of those places there you didn’t stop, you had what they call a catch and a throw. You take a mail bag and throw one off, and raise the arm on the RPO and then catch the mail bag that the post office put up.

David Foy

David Foy: We had catcher pouches and you had to kick ‘em out the door and the guy was always waiting at the crossing, and then you picked up the one off the pole that was hung up for you, you know. Sometimes that got exciting you know, the train was moving pretty fast, at night you’d be looking and looking for this crossing and see if they guy was there to pick up, see if the guy was going to be there and get the mail and if they had the pouch hanging up for us. It was a little tough some times to get the pouch out the door and in a convenient place for him. Sometimes, I mean, he would be ducking and what have you, [laughs] you know you’re moving along pretty good.

William Maurer

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any dangerous situations?

William Maurer: No, but I ran into an unfortunate one when I lost a payroll. We used to carry the payrolls from the Federal Reserve in Atlanta to, from the North and South Carolina, I guess it was for the mills up there, and we were carrying the payroll for the mills up around Gastonia, and of course when, a lot of times we were, you had mail on your train, it was a small town, a lot of times we wouldn’t stop. You would just kick the mail off and a mailmessenger would pick it up. I say kick it off, it would be in a mail sack. And this one particular time, I don’t know what happened, we were coming into Gastonia and I’m sure we had the payroll for the mills, for the Federal Reserve, and the train lurched a few miles outside of town... of course I had the mail sack in the door, ready to kick it off, you know. And when it lurched the mail sack went out the door into, off the side of the tracks. And so, consequently, I can laugh now but it wasn’t funny then, I told my supervisor, I said, I just lost the mail sack. He said, I won’t use the words that he used on me, but he was unhappy and... so what happened, of course when I got in I didn’t talk to the inspectors until I got back to Atlanta, I had to tell them what happened. I found out later on that the mail sack, when it went off the train, the train lurched, there was a lot of honeysuckle on either side of the tracks. So if you know anything about honeysuckle, things’ll go inside of it and will spring back over it, you can’t find it. So unless you’re from the South you wouldn’t know what I’m saying, but apparently the mail sack slid out the door, went down the embankment into a whole bunch of honeysuckle, whatever you call it, growing down there, it just covered it up. So they told me they had to back track I don’t know how many miles and it took them several hours to find the mail sack because it was so well hidden by the honeysuckle.

Maurice Cox

Maurice Cox: ...and the clerk in charge told me to get ready to throw the big pouch of mail off at this town and he said, no there’ll be a pickup truck at the crossing here, and when you see that pickup truck you throw that pouch of mail off. And so I did, I saw this pickup truck at the crossing and, the pouch was really very full of mail, and I kicked it off, and it’s funny ‘cause the guy in the truck gave me this strange look, and then about the time I kicked it off the clerk in charge said, oh my! I said this is the wrong town! He said you were supposed to throw it off at the next town [laughs]. So then the clerk in charge decided he’d catch one of the pouches for me, which I had been catching and I never did knock one down, but he thought this is difficult so he would catch it for me. And I’m throwing mail in the sacks standing there at the table and all of the sudden here comes broken glass flying everywhere. The clerk in charge had knocked the pouch down and it hit the windows and broke two windows. And it had glass everywhere. So he came up there, he’s kind of tee-ed, he says I guess I should’ve let you catch it [laughs].

Kenneth Wilson

Kenneth Wilson: And then a guy was going to catch mail, you know what catch mail is?

INTERVIEWER: With like the catcher arm?

Kenneth Wilson: Yeah. Well he, he got a little confused, raised the catcher arm and caught a bridge over Wood River, Nebraska. Broke it off. Nobody got hurt but he broke it off. And then one time I kicked a big bag of mail and there was a body of water right outside the track and the pouch of mail, pouch of mail, hit the ground, bounced over a fence that was to keep the mail from going in there, and ran right into the, rolled right into the pond. I don’t know whatever happened to that mail, whether they got it out or not.


In September 1875, the Railway Mail Service underwent a new cycle of change with the construction of the first five-car train consisting of four postal cars and one coach.(5) Assembled with the help of participating railroads, such as the New York Central and the Pennsylvania railroads, this new train (dubbed “Fast Mail”) traveled between New York City and Chicago, Illinois through Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toledo.(6)  In an 1874 annual report General Superintendent George S. Bangs explained the new train was “designed to expedite the movement of mail from the east to the west and cover the distance in about 24-hrs.”(7) Previously fast trains ran on separate lines resulting in longer connections times. With the cooperation of numerous rail lines, the fast mail cut off 12 to 24 hours of travel time, a phenomenal accomplishment for its time.(8) In addition, it carried larger quantities of mail. On its first trip, the train carted “more than 33 tons of mail.”(9)

Refer to caption
Illustration of Fast Mail train.

The initial train earned the nickname of New York Central’s “Twentieth Century Limited,” while its rival from the Pennsylvania Railroad became known as “Limited Mail.”(10) The popularity of fast mail eventually went bicoastal in 1889 traveling on the New York and Chicago to San Francisco.(11) New lines were also added between New York, St. Louis, and Cincinnati via the Pennsylvania Railroad and its connections with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Indianapolis.(12) Although the fast mail train proved to be an operational success, Congress was not interested in continuing the funding for the service and it was discontinued only 11 months after the initial send off.(13)


1) Romanski, Fred J. "The "Fast Mail": A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service." Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6.

2) Ibid.

3) Ibid.

4) Ibid.

5) Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985.

6) Romanski, Fred J. "The "Fast Mail": A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service." Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6.

7) Ibid.

8) Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985.

9) Romanski, Fred J. "The "Fast Mail": A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service." Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6.

10) Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985.

11) Ibid.

12) Romanski, Fred J. "The "Fast Mail": A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service." Prologue Magazine Fall 2005: 1-6.

13) Ibid.