Railway Mail Service

Topical Reference Page
Railway Mail Service clerks sorting mail in a rail car

For more than a century, the core of America’s postal system was the Railway Mail Service. The system of train lines that crisscrossed the nation carried passengers and mail in and out of large cities and small towns. The Railway Mail Service went a step further in service than passenger trains, providing mail delivery and pick-up to small towns where trains did not even stop. The service relied on partnerships with America’s railway companies and the dedication and efforts of the service’s Railway Post Office clerks. From its beginnings in the midst of the Civil War to its slow decline after World War II and the service’s last run in 1977, the history of America’s Railway Mail Service is one that was central to America’s postal history.

July 30, 1993 - Permanent
Exhibition

The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. The National Postal Museum re-created a railway mail train in its Atrium. The interior fixtures is from a de-commissioned mail car. The exterior portion of the Railway Post Office train was created by Smithsonian artisans.

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Chicago & North West railroad mail car model
Exhibition
Beginning in 1832 train cars were used to carry the mail, and then in 1864 postal officials inaugurated...
railway clerks loading mail on the train
Exhibition
In 1869, special agents (i.e., inspectors) began supervising the mail and clerks on the new Railway Mail Service (RMS) cars. Inspectors were responsible for ensuring that every aspect of the Railway Mail Service was functioning at its highest and most secure level, including moving the mail on and off the trains.
The American Railway Mail clerks were the elite of the Post Office Department. This website is in dedication of their work with the Railway Mail Service (RMS), and highlights not only a history of the RMS, but the personal oral histories of some clerks who spent the “best times of their lives” braving the rails. This article highlights not only a history of the RMS, but presents oral histories of some clerks who spent the “best times of their lives” braving the rails.

Related Blogs

150th Anniversary of Railway Mail Service

On August 28, 1864, while the nation was still in the midst of the Civil War, the Post Office Department established the Railway Mail Service. The new service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains, not just in post offices. Trains had been carrying mail for almost 30 years by that time. Under that system, mail bags were loaded onto the trains to be carried to another post office for processing. Some were delivered, but many others were put back into bags for another train trip. Some postal officials began wondering if they could improve that process by putting clerks on the trains to sort mail along the way, dramatically reducing the time it took to receive a letter.

Omaha Train Robbery: May 22, 1909

In the dark of the night around 11pm Union Pacific’s Overland Limited train was stopped just south of Omaha, Nebraska by a pair of men holding pistols and wearing handkerchief masks. When the train stopped, another pair appeared and demanded the mail clerks open up the door to the...

The Great Kipton Train Wreck

On April 18, 1891, near Kipton station, 40 miles west of Cleveland, Ohio, the fast mail train #14 collided with the Toledo Express. The fast mail was running at full speed, and the Toledo express was almost at a spot where it would traditionally pull over on a siding to let the fast mail pass. The massive collision killed nine men, six of them postal clerks working on the fast mail train.

The Burrow Brothers

By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator

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Advertisement for the New York Central Railroad

The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. Railway mail service began in 1832, but grew slowly until the Civil War. In 1862, mail was sorted en route, as a train moved between two points. The idea proved to be exceptionally successful, and as the postal service decentralized its operations, it concentrated on sorting much of the growing volume of mail while it was being carried on the nation's rail lines.