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)
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. More interviews can be found in the Oral Histories section of this website.