Long before cell phones, texts, and email the U.S. Mail connected the nation. In the 1800s, the United States Post Office realized the potential of using the railroad to not only transport mail, but also sort it along the route. Mailbags once untouched for days were now opened and sorted as the train sped towards its destination. This idea proved so successful that an Act of Congress on July 7, 1838, declared all railroads to be postal routes. By the 1900s, railroads were an essential tool for postal service success.
When exchanging mail, trains slowed down so clerks could transfer mail by hand. This system was replaced by a mail crane, a simple steel hook and crane. Mailbags were hung from the crane and attached at the bottom with the hook. As the train sped by, a mail clerk would raise the train’s catcher arm to grab the mailbag. “Mail-on-the-fly”.
Railway Post Office clerks were considered the elite of the postal service’s employees. The exhausting and dangerous job required passing challenging entrance exams. A passing score on the civil service exam was 97% or higher, requiring a clerk to sort 600 pieces of mail an hour. A single route was not the extent of testing, multiple routes for individual home states had to be learned, plus the routes of any other worked states. Clerks finally had to know where connecting trains met, so mail going either north/south or east/west could be delivered to the correct train. This intense, high-pressure work environment elicited strong relationships and interactions.was only half of the process, the clerk also had to throw those destinations sorted mail from the train.
Railway Post Office clerks developed a strong sense of camaraderie. No clerk rested until all work was completed and every piece of mail was sorted. It was a “one for all and all for one” atmosphere in which each took pride in his job and the responsibility of ensuring the mail was delivered. For 140 years the Railway Post Office carried the mail to be delivered across America.
The last Railway Post Office, which operated between New York and Washington, D.C., made a final run on June 30, 1977.
Please stop by the railroad museum in Boulder City and see an original railway post office car, and see how mail was sorted.