Through the first decades of the 19th century, postal officials relied on stagecoaches and boats to extend mail service into growing national territories. In 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened, carrying people and cargo. Two years later, in 1832, officials granted a stagecoach line an annual fee of $400 to carry mail “on the railroad”(1) in Pennsylvania. As railways grew, so did the opportunities for moving mail faster to more locations. In 1838 all US railroads were designated as “post roads,” encouraging wider access for mail onto America’s burgeoning railroad lines. Railroads experienced tremendous growth over the next decade. By 1840, 2,818 miles of railroad track had been laid in the US. By the beginning of the Civil War 21 years later, 30,000 miles of track were carrying passengers and mail in the country.
As train lines grew, so did the Post Office Department’s reliance on the young transportation system’s ability to move more mail, more quickly, than stagecoaches or boats. Pouches full of mail were placed on train cars as cargo, traveling unopened to their destinations. In 1840, postal officials began to examine their use of railway lines for carrying mail. The Department assigned two mail route agents to accompany mail on board a car on the Boston to Springfield, MA train route. The agents were told to make mail exchanges along the route, as well as to “attend to delivery, and receive and forward all unpaid way letters and packages received.”(2) Under these directions the agents removed mail from the pouches, removing and separating items destined for post offices along the train route. It was the first step in the evolution of the relationship between America’s railways and its mail.
By mid century, it was evident that postal officials viewed the future American railroads to be the primary mail mover in the nation. By the 1850s the Post Office Department was spending more money to carry mail by rails than by stagecoach and steamers combined. Railroads carried mail over 19,202,469 pieces of mail in 1855, stagecoaches and steamers together carried 23,318,945. The cost per mile for carrying mail on railway cars averaged fewer than 11 cents per mile, three cents cheaper than the cost by mile for steamer mail, but five cents more per mile than the average stagecoach contract.(3) Postal officials continued to increase their reliance on America’s railroads for carrying mails through the 1850s, as spending for railway mail grew from $1,275,520 in 1852 to $2,310,389 just four years later.(4)
Mail agents continued their rudimentary mail processing until postal officials made a giant step in the way they used trains to carry mail. This radical new system appeared in Missouri in 1862 under the direction of General William A. Davis, who had served as the St. Joseph, MO, postmaster from 1855-1861. During his tenure as postmaster, Davis had witnessed the Pony Express service, which began operating out of St. Joseph on April 4, 1860. He had witnessed the rush to move the mail by rail to the Pony Express headquarters before the rider could leave town. He understood the importance of making sure the mail was ready to go the moment it came off the train, and not trapped in a mail pouch that had to be delivered to a post office for sorting. On August 5, 1862, Davis reported the successful completion of mail processing and distribution of mail aboard a moving train to the assistant Postmaster General. Davis installed some rudimentary mail sorting tables on board a train car and assigned a clerk work the mail while the train was in motion. “We have now gotten through a week’s service,” he noted in his report, “and can confidently report that the accommodations are furnished that are promised by Mr. Hayward, superintendent of the road, the distribution can be done entirely to your satisfaction.”(5) Davis was using a specially outfitted train car on the Hannibal-St. Joseph line for the experiment. The car contained a sorting table and pigeon-hole letter sorting case. Although successful, the Hannibal-St. Joseph service ended in less than a year. The beleaguered state of Missouri was not the best choice for such a test during the Civil War.