The End of Mail Service on the Chesapeake & Ohio

Postal clerks busy sorting mail on the go. The RPO car is on one of the C&O passenger trains that ran between Washington, DC and Cincinnati, Ohio.
F. Douglas Bess, Jr. Collection

The Railway Post Office (RPO) was in existence for over 130 years and was an efficient way to move mail throughout the United States. Mail was sorted in-route for destinations to insure timely delivery. The RPO car was off-limits to passengers, and postal clerks were armed with pistols.

October 28, 1967, however, marked the end of through RPO mail service on Chesapeake & Ohio passenger trains between Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, Ohio. Although some limited sorting of mail still existed, it was really the beginning of the Post Office Department’s move to handle mail on trucks and planes throughout the U.S.

The history of carrying mail on trains in the United States dates back to the early part of the 1830’s. Mail was carried only on a couple of railroads at that time, although it was carried in bags along with other baggage. On July 7, 1838 the US Congress officially designated all railroads as official postal routes.

Left Photo: Postal Clerk placing mail in pigeon holes. Right Photo: Mail being bagged up. The hook in the background was for grabbing mail set out at intermediate stations and depots where trains did not stop. The bags were collected on the fly.
 F. Douglas Bess, Jr. Collection

The first mail sorted on a train while in route occurred on August 28, 1864, between Chicago, Illinois and Clinton, Iowa. Mail was sorted to, and received from each post office along the route, as well as major post offices beyond the route’s end-points. The expansion of mail service came with the signing of the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1, 1862, which the government funded to help build the transcontinental railroad. Other railroads were later built in the west which greatly expanded mail service by rail.

Please note the mailbox at the left side of the photo taken in July, 1968 at Southern Pacific’s Richmond, CA station. Before RPO service was discontinued, a person could drop a letter in the box knowing that it would be picked up by the next scheduled passenger train to stop there.
F. Douglas Bess, Jr Photo

Some time after WW II, people began abandoning travel by passenger trains and opted instead to use cars or airlines. Improved roads and air service made travel by these modes more attractive, convenient and faster. Passenger trains were removed gradually over the years for lack of ridership. However, a number of trains continued because the revenue for hauling mail offset losses by decreased ridership.  With reduced routes and the increasing cost of moving mail by rail, the Post Office Department came to the decision instead to use trucks and planes to move the mail.

As contracts were cancelled, railroads began applying to the Interstate Commerce Commission (predecessor to today’s Surface Transportation Board) to discontinue most remaining passenger trains. A case in point was the removal of C&O’s trains #3, the Fast Flying Virginian (FFV) and #4, The Sportsman on May 12, 1968. The eastbound and westbound George Washington, trains #1 and 2, were the only passenger trains left on the C&O after that date and they lasted until the formation of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.

Railway Mail Service postal cancellation shown for C&O’s Train #2, The George Washington. I believe a kindhearted RPO clerk stamped the back of the envelope knowing it was the last day for sorted mail.
F. Douglas Bess, Jr Collection

I was fortunate, along with several other members of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, to have ridden on and photographed the last run of RPO mail service on the C&O. The black and white photos (above) of the interior of the C&O RPO car were taken by a staff photographer for the local Huntington newspaper. These photos were passed down to me by my grandfather, Bill Bess, who worked for the newspaper for over forty years.

Both photos at the Ashland, Kentucky station: The station was located in the heart of town where the passenger main ran between the east end and west end of Ashland. It was here that passengers could connect with trains to Louisville, Kentucky and Detroit, Michigan. The passenger main was removed years later. Now, passengers at Ashland board the Amtrak Cardinal at the site of the old C&O Freight Station next to the Ohio River.
F. Douglas Bess Jr. Photos.
Both photos at the Newport, Kentucky depot: mail and baggage being unloaded. The depot was located directly across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. Often times people heading to destinations in the downtown Cincinnati area would get off the train here instead of Cincinnati Union Terminal and take a taxi, as it saved time. The truck being loaded with baggage was a sign of things to come for mail service.
F. Douglas Bess, Jr. Photos.
Both photos at Cincinnati Union Terminal: the photo at left shows Train #3 arriving at CUT on October 28, 1967. The elevated concourse was removed in 1974. However, the remainder of the terminal was saved and is now a museum of science and history. The photo at right shows employees at CUT loading storage mail (not requiring sorting or delivery en route) on baggage car #301. This car will be on Train #2 that will leave CUT that evening.
F. Douglas Bess, Jr. Photos.
After arriving in Huntington from Cincinnati on Train #2 on the evening of October 28, Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society members (left to right) John Killoran, Wayne Hamrick, your author, and Bob Withers gathered around C&O RPO #111 to bid it farewell on its final trip to Washington.
Larry K. Fellure Photo, Bob Withers Collection.

The Railway Mail Service (RMS) within the Post Office Department (POD) existed between 1864 and September 30, 1948. The RMS was renamed the Postal Transportation Service, and existed until 1960. The change in name came about by the increased use of the Highway Post Office. Similar to the RPO, the HPO, came into existence in 1942 to supplement RPO service. As more passenger trains were discontinued, more mail was being handled over the highways by the HPOs. After that, the management of the mail on trains came under the Bureau of Transportation, which was still under control of the POD. By 1971, the POD was no longer a cabinet position. With an act of Congress, it became a governmental agency, and was renamed the United States Postal Service.

Doug BessPhotographs and text Copyright 2018 by Doug Bess except where otherwise noted.

This article first appeared on Doug’s website, WVRails

4 thoughts on “Last Run

  1. Doug, you were blessed to be able to see the RPO’s in service before the end. The public today has no clue of what communications were like before radio, television, and finally the internet. Distribution of first class letters (“Were they like email and texting, Dad?”), magazines, newspapers and everything else was only made possible by the railroads and the trains that ran throughout the country. Thank you for sharing the story and the photos. Gone but not forgotten.

  2. Wonderful history . I remember the RPO cars up on the Central Vermont after coming out of Springfield, Ma and points south.

  3. RPO trains didn’t have to stop to offload or pick up mail either. The local incoming mail was just thrown out in a sturdy canvas bag onto the dock as the train continued on it’s way, and pickup mail was grabbed by a swing-out arm mounted on the postal car from a pole mechanism by the trackside.

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