The Railway Postal Clerk
A Vanished Breed
The first record of rail transportation of mail in the United States was in 1831, when a mail contractor utilized the service of the South Carolina Railroad. It was in the shift from stage to rail that a new job or profession appeared—that of the “route agent,” the forerunner of the railway postal clerk. On the old stage lines, a local postmaster, who usually had his office in the tavern, opened the carrying case containing the mail and exchanged “mails” while the stage driver changed horses. On the railroads, this could not be done, and a man was soon assigned to accompany the mail on the train; a separate compartment was set aside for the mails, beginning in 1835. This agent usually rode in the baggage car, and was at first the baggage man or other employee of the stage company or railroad.
In 1837, the Post Office Department began appointing “route agents” of its own on some lines; the first recorded agent was John E. Kendall, who rode from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Others soon followed, and each route agent was given a hand postmarker to stamp local letters received along the way.
In 1838, with the rapid building of railroads, Congress declared all railroads to be “post roads,” and provided for making direct contracts for mail by rail wherever the cost would not exceed 25% more than the cost by stage.
The duties of the route agent included accompanying the mails to the train and receiving them in his compartment (or in his part of the baggage car). Right before the departure of the train, he opened the letter box on the depot platform and took out late‑mailed letters. Before 1847, when stamps were introduced, he made out waybills for collection at delivery of these letters, which were then tied with the other letters in brown wrapping paper and addressed to a DPO (Distribution Post Office); these packets so wrapped were referred to as “mails.” Mail which was received at each station was sorted and turned in to the terminal office or nearest DPO; local letters were dispatched en route. There were 35 post offices designated as DPOs in 1810; these were important post offices in centers of large areas, counties, or states, to which mail was sent for distribution.
It was soon seen that the weak spot in the system was the DPOs at the termini or junction points where the mails had to be redistributed, missing all close connections. In 1863, a meeting of postal officials was held in Cleveland, Ohio, which emphasized the need for “postal reform,” and severely castigated the abuses and delays in the DPOs explaining how letters were being sent by circuitous routes, in order that more DPOs would share in the commissions for redistribution.
A glance at the route agent system in 1860 shows that it was increasing rapidly, with the constant building of railroad lines. On June 30, 1864, there were 6,085 mail routes; distances served by each type of service were: 7,278 miles by steamboats; 22,666 miles by railroads; and 109,278 miles by stage and sulky. The railroad and boat lines were the most important, as they were the arteries which fed the horse routes. These railroad routes at first formed an unorganized and unattached service loosely related to the Post Office Department and to the DPOs. Technically, they were given some supervision by the nearest large DPO, in addition to some general instructions from Washington.
The first experiment in distributing mails in so‑called “post offices on wheels” was made in 1862 by William A. Davis between Hannibal and St. Joseph, Missouri. Its aim was to expedite the connection at St. Joseph with the overland stage, which had replaced the Pony Express routes to the West a year earlier. The railroad company furnished a baggage car, altered as requested by Davis. Besides being similar to a route agent’s car, it was provided with a table and a 65‑pigeon‑hole letter case, but it had no pouch rack. Davis boarded the westbound train at Palmyra, Missouri, with authority to open the sacks and letter packages which were addressed to the St. Joseph DPO, to remove all California letters, and to make up and sort the mail in a manner identical to the way the St. Joseph DPO would have dispatched it. Davis was paid at the rate of $100.00 per month. The railroad was harassed by guerrillas and by lack of maintenance, resulting in several suspensions and finally abandonment of the experiment. After the Civil War, RPO (Railway Post Office) service was reestablished on this line, and it became known as the Chicago & Kansas City RPO.
George B. Armstrong, an Assistant Postmaster at Chicago during the Civil War, was summoned, along with other special agents and extra post office clerks, to go to Cairo, Illinois, and clear up a congestion of both army and naval mails. He was put in charge of a new DPO there. Because he did a good job at Cairo, Armstrong was heeded when he made suggestions regarding the distribution of mail in railway postal cars. Working with A.N. Zevely, who had been chosen by the Post Office Department to look into postal “reform,” Armstrong started to put his theories to work.
Zevely wrote to various railroad officials in the spring of 1864, asking that special cars be prepared for experiments with “traveling post offices.” Apparently, even though he promoted the experiment, Zevely seemed to have only a hazy idea regarding the technical improvements needed; that is when Armstrong provided the know‑how. He proposed that all possible direct mailings to DPOs be discontinued; this meant no more packaging of letters. Secondly, he proposed that all post offices be classified, showing which were junctions, which had star routes, etc. Third, he proposed a system of traveling post offices; this proposal, while the most important of the three, would be useless without the other two reforms. In short, Armstrong, after classifying offices and dispensing with the wrappers, would have all letters for the same office or connection tied up in a package. (Basically, this system is still in use.) Since all letters were not yet postage‑prepaid with stamps, he needed to provide for continuation of the post‑billing; however, his suggestions simplified the system overall.
Any railroad work was considered dangerous in those days, especially that of the postal clerk; his car was generally the weakest in the train, often an old wooden remodeled baggage car . . .
With these recommendations, the Postmaster General authorized Armstrong to test his theories by actual experience on railroads out of Chicago. Armstrong arranged with the Chicago & North Western Railroad to remodel a route agent’s car. Letter cases with 77 separations each were borrowed from the Chicago DPO and were installed. Papers were sorted in a crude case of 10 x 12 inch boxes. The car was about 40 feet long, with two windows and natural light in the upper deck; it was equipped with oil lamps, but no end doors. The crew opened pouches and sacks, cut and “worked” letter packages, making up mail for local dispatch, crossing star routes, and points beyond termini.
Publicity was arranged with the Chicago Times for the first trip on August 28, 1864, between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. The “United States Railway Post Office” left Chicago with a crew of four, plus some business and newspaper men who went as far as Dixon, Illinois. Mail was worked on this first trip with surprising ease and efficiency. This line, with only a slight variation, became a part of the Chicago & Omaha RPO.
Very soon, other RPO lines were established, and a form of national organization developed. The service was placed under a General Superintendent of the RMS (Railway Mail Service); George B. Armstrong was the first appointee. The service mushroomed and became the backbone of the Post Office Department; it would provide employment to thousands of a special kind of postal clerk for over the next hundred years.
The RMS in the East was very slow to be developed, due to the opposition of eastern postmasters, with their fat redistributing commissions; while in the West, out of Chicago, RPOs were being steadily added. The first full year of the infant RMS saw only three RPOs, later known as the NY & Wash, NY & Salamanca, and NY & Pitts, established in the East, where opposition to this new service threatened the whole system. When Harrison Parks, one of the original four clerks on the Chicago to Clinton run, was put in charge of the eastern runs, he found no local service being performed and few qualified clerks.
The bitterest opposition was in New England, around the newly established Boston & NY RPO. The resentment of politically powerful postmasters and newspapers, notably in Boston, was apparent in the attack on the RMS system in the Boston Morning Journal in 1874. The paper proposed an immediate return to the DPOs and route agents, accusing the Post Office Department of holding all westbound mails for the two daily RPO trains to New York. Captain White, an official of the RMS, publicly informed the Boston postmaster of his duty to send mail to New York City and points beyond via the dozen daily closed pouch trains running at that time, rather than holding it all for the two RPO trains. After the RMS established by such firm tactics its authority over the dispatch of mail, there was a steady improvement everywhere. Many other RPOs were established in the East, some connecting with those in the Midwest.
In 1869, the RMS was organized into six divisions, under a single general superintendent, George Armstrong. Armstrong introduced the first standard mail cranes in 1869, for the exchange of mail at non‑stop stations; until then, the trains merely slowed down for the exchange. Installed by the railroads at every non‑stop station, the mail crane had special catcher pouches which contained the mail to be dispatched; a catcher arm in the doorway of the RPO caught the hanging pouch on the fly. All closed‑pouch, star route, and route agent runs were placed under RMS jurisdiction. The first extensive use of night RPO trains began, providing overnight delivery of most mails within 300 miles.
The most historical of all mail train wrecks was made famous by the song, ‘Wreck of the Old 97’
Many innovations which lasted during the RMS existence originated between 1868 and 1872. By 1873, there were 752 railway postal clerks in the United States. The first famous “Fast Mail” train was established on September 16, 1875, on the NY & Chicago RPO. Previously, there had been fast service on short and separate lines, but their time values were lost at connecting points. With the cooperation of the various lines involved, this much publicized event in RMS history was a significant milestone of progress in the entire postal service, because it saved from 12 to 24 hours in transit time. The initial trip included four postal cars (two 50‑foot “letter cars” and two 60‑foot “paper cars”) and one drawing‑room coach which accommodated 100 distinguished officials, including the Vice President, reporters from all sizable eastern newspapers, mayors, postmasters, and top railroad officials. In later years, this train was known as New York Central’s “Twentieth Century Limited.” Although this train got most of the publicity, Pennsylvania RR’s competing “Limited Mail” route from New York to Chicago and St. Louis via Pittsburgh started on the same date. This train to Chicago in later years became known as Pennsy’s crack “Broadway Limited.”
These events finally led to the establishment of the storied Overland Transcontinental line, which extended the NY & Chicago service westward to San Francisco. The first transcontinental Fast Mail to the Pacific ran in 1889.
Most dissatisfaction by the RPO clerks in the early days was due to the poorly constructed and serviced postal cars used by the railroads. Any railroad work was considered dangerous in those days, especially that of the postal clerk; his car was generally the weakest in the train, often an old wooden remodeled baggage car, which was located right behind the engine and received the full impact in cases of head‑on crashes or derailments. This was a special problem up into the early 1900s; whereas the other cars of the train were constructed of steel, the RPO was of wooden construction.
From 1877 to 1884, 25 clerks were killed and 147 were seriously injured out of 3,153 employed; from 1885 to 1892 the figures jumped to 43 and 463, respectively. The most historical of all mail train wrecks was made famous by the song, “Wreck of the Old 97.” The engine and four cars of the Washington & Charlotte RPO ‑‑ Southern RR Train 97 ‑‑ crashed over the side of a 75‑foot trestle near Danville, Virginia, in 1903, killing eleven clerks and seriously injuring three clerks.
In 1902, the number of divisions had been increased to eleven; there were 8,794 clerks; 179,902 miles of RPO routes; 1,278 steam railroads; 23 trolley RPOs; and 49 boat‑line RPOs.
During 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a startling proclamation, known as the infamous Gag Rule. It forbade any officer or employee of the U.S. Government, directly or indirectly, individually or through associations, to solicit an increase in pay or to influence in his own interest, any legislation before Congress or its committees, save through the department in which he served, under penalty of dismissal from government service. The Gag Rule was rigidly enforced by postal officials, clerks who were trying to improve their lot were spied upon and reported by postal inspectors, and many clerks were dismissed. As if this were not bad enough for postal employees, in 1908, Frank Hitchcock, a strict and economy‑crazed politician, was appointed Postmaster General; he was followed in 1913 by Albert S. Burleson, who continued the same policies. In the opinion of all postal employees, these two were the most despised of all the Postmaster Generals.
Morale was at its lowest during the winter of 1910‑1911; not even the customary extra Christmas help was allowed, and tons of Christmas mail remained unworked for days.
Probably the event which was most influential in bringing about the improvement of conditions was the publication of a 32‑page monthly magazine, beginning in 1909 and continuing for eight years. It was published by a former NY & Chicago RPO clerk who had quit the service for health reasons and who was living in Phoenix, Arizona. It was called the “Harpoon,” with a subtitle, “A Magazine That Hurts ‑‑ For Postal Clerks. Its purpose was to let the public, especially the business public, know the abuses. The “Harpoon” gave both Congress and the public information about conditions in the service ‑‑ information which clerks were forbidden to publicize. Naturally, postal officials were enraged by the “Harpoon’s” barbs, threatening supporters of the infamous magazine with dismissal The Post Office Department, a bit on guard by then, began to order that wooden mail cars be located further away from engines on the trains, to decrease their vulnerability in case of a head‑on crash; also, sanitation in the cars was improved and a few steel cars were appearing. But, to prove that it “had the last say,” the Department introduced further oppressive measures ‑‑ the service rating system was expanded into a fearful weapon of discipline, with new penalties added without notice and harshly applied. Lines were badly understaffed; on top of this, Hitchcock issued orders to “take up the slack,” by reducing layoffs and lengthening hours. Crews which had “never gone stuck” (never failed to work all the mail) now cared little if they did not complete distribution.
Morale was at its lowest during the winter of 1910‑1911; not even the customary extra Christmas help was allowed, and tons of Christmas mail remained unworked for days. Clerks were called back from their layoffs and back‑and‑forth hauling of mail occurred, until the mail was finally worked. Conditions were not helped when four clerks were killed in a Christmas Eve crash, while in a wooden postal car that had passed inspection on July 1st with the notation “safe and sound construction.”
The press, which had been backing the administration, now swung around against Hitchcock’s policies, and published accounts of the dissatisfaction in the postal services, as well as photos of huge piles of “stuck” Christmas mail.
In January, 1911, the crisis came ‑‑ clerks on the 225‑mile Tracy, Minn. & Pierre, S.D., RPO (Chicago & North Western RR) had their fill. During 1910, sixteen dissatisfied clerks had resigned or transferred from this line due to the unacceptable conditions—the line was understaffed, the crews had no chance of completing distribution, and the officials made no attempt to correct conditions. Thirteen regular clerks on this line were ordered to protect a helper run (work mail on a run over and above their regular assignments) without extra pay. For most of these clerks, because of where they lived and their schedules, this meant that three nights of their layoffs would be consumed by the unpaid trip. With the exception of one clerk, they refused to report to cover the run. All twelve of the “strikers” were suspended for insubordination and failure to protect runs; five were later discharged and the others were reduced in grade. Some Post Office Inspectors backed up the clerks at first, and even secured the discharge of one official involved; but that only outraged certain superiors. There were no terminals in those days where the unworked mail could be sent for distribution, so the mail piled up in appalling congestion. Scores of substitutes were rushed to the line and utter chaos reigned for two months, as “strikebreakers” totally unfamiliar with the distribution were brought in from nearby divisions.
The news spread like wildfire, making the Department apprehensive of other “wildcat strikes.” Of course, mainly through the “Harpoon,” a lot of publicity was given to the event. Naturally, the public did not know the merits of the case, but did want its mail, and without delay. Telegrams poured into Washington, St. Paul, Pierre, and any other authority which might offer relief; both state assemblies petitioned Congress to take measures to alleviate the mess. Newspapers reprinted articles from the “Harpoon,” so the public became aware, also.
The strike succeeded, for the Department made an attempt at appeasement, for a change. Within two months the line had been raised to its proper classification, salaries were raised $100.00 per year, overdue promotions were awarded, objectionable helper runs were extended to Pierre (where there were better accommodations), and a semblance of order was restored to the line.
In 1911, RPO clerks received their first travel allowance, 75 cents per day. That same year Congress also passed the first “steel car law,” which provided that full RPO cars had to be constructed under rigid safety specifications, and built of equal strength to other cars of the train. July 1, 1916, was set as the deadline for withdrawal of all mainline wooden cars.
The Anti‑Gag Law was passed in 1912, giving all government employees the rights that the 1902 law had denied. Other benefits included automatic progressive promotions to clerks after a year’s satisfactory service in the next lower grade, and one and one‑half year’s pay to any clerk incapacitated by injury while on duty; it also provided for each eight hours of work by non‑road clerks to be within a ten‑hour period.
Regular Parcel Post was introduced for the first time in 1913, flooding the lines and causing more resentment. This was soon remedied by late 1914 with the establishment of nearly 100 RMS Terminals at various cities, removing the bulk of the Parcel Post from the RPO lines.
But Postmaster General Burleson was not through yet: In 1914, he proposed to Congress that the postal service’s eight‑hour day be abolished, along with the one day’s rest in seven, that 11,000 promotions scheduled for 1915 be withheld, that a cut of 30 cents per hour of substitutes’ salaries be made, and that all the new terminals be in the lowest pay classification. He pointed with pride to a savings of $22,000,000 ‑‑ to be taken from some of the government’s most underpaid employees! Fortunately, these proposals failed due to the provisions of the Anti‑Gag Law of 1912.
By 1915, there were more than 20,000 clerks; most of the increase was due to the establishment of the new terminals. There were 914 full RPO cars and 3,040 apartment RPO cars operating on 216,000 miles of track.
During World War I, the RMS was in complete charge of all mails for the armed forces overseas. RMS clerks were exempt from the draft due to the large increase in mail for both the domestic camps and the men overseas. Thousands of clerks enlisted anyway, resulting in the undermanned RPOs frequently turning dozens of unworked pouches over to the terminals for distribution.
In 1920, the Post Office Department effected a complete turnabout in its policy in dealing with postal clerks. Will Hayes was appointed Postmaster General and his aim was to “humanize the postal service;” he became one of the best‑liked of the Postmaster Generals. The first retirement law was passed in 1920, providing pensions of $180 to $720 annually.
Beginning in 1921, RPO clerks were required to carry revolvers, surplus W.W. I Army Colt 45s. Due to their size and weight, it was not necessary that the revolvers be worn by the clerks, but they had to keep them handy should they be needed. These guns were replaced in the 1930s by the Post Office Department’s snub‑nosed 38s. Because these guns were of a smaller size and of lighter weight, clerks were required to wear them at all times while on duty.
By the 1920s, the RMS was organized into fifteen divisions. The 1920s also brought an improvement in working conditions; e.g., all 60 foot RPO cars built after 1912 were required to be of all‑steel construction, thus satisfying the top grievance of the clerks for years. By 1925, a RPO clerk’s basic salary was $2,450 per annum (one grade higher than that of post office clerks) and there was a 48‑hour work week, with seven holidays during the year. Travel allowance was increased to $3.00 per day, there was a 10% night differential for working between the hours of 6:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M., and employees received fifteen days annual and ten days sick leave each year. Very few workers in the private sector had some of these benefits at that time. One benefit that postal employees did not receive until several years after the private sector was time‑and‑a‑half for overtime; this benefit was not effective until shortly after Pearl Harbor Day.
There were also some dark clouds showing up in the 1920s for RPO clerks. The railroads had a monopoly on transportation for years; now they were being challenged by motor cars and trucks on newly paved roads. Transcontinental airlines had begun operation, carrying premium priced domestic air mail. Railroads began to abolish both passenger and freight service, many of the short feeder lines cutting service and some trains on other lines being removed. This was only the start of what was going to intensify in the 1930s and immediately after W.W. II, as other forms of transportation improved. The depression years increased the rate at which trains were removed.
Due to the withdrawal of RPO trains, leaving some areas with poor mail service, the Department decided to experiment with the distribution of mail on large buses, equipped somewhat like RPO cars. On February 10, 1941, service began on the Washington & Harrisonburg, Va., HPO (Highway Post Office). It was a success from the start, but due to W.W. II, expansion of this service was delayed for several years. After the war, HPO service increased rapidly.
The 40‑hour work week was abolished for the duration of the war on December 22, 1941. Clerks worked a minimum of 48 hours, but often much more, either on the road or at a terminal during their layoff. The service was not only coping with an all‑time record amount of mail, but was doing it with undermanned crews, because experienced clerks were drafted into the military and assigned to either an APO (Army Post Office) or FPO (Fleet Post Office).
The well‑deserved granting of free postage to military personnel was partly responsible for the increased mail. Any postal clerk who worked the Photostatted “V‑Mail” letters, with tiny, nearly illegible addresses, became familiar with the difficulties involved.
RPOs everywhere ran out of standard pouch and sack equipment, as it channeled overseas. No. 2 sacks, generally used for papers and circulars, were substituted for pouches by the use of a green tag with the words “First Class Mail,” much to the confusion of pouch clerks and railroad mail handlers. To augment the stock of No. 1 sacks (Parcel Post), coarse burlap bags were used, many still bearing the name of some kind of sugar or feed.
By December of 1944, 3,952 clerks were in the armed forces. Not until after V‑J Day did the pressure let up. The 40‑hour work week was restored in October, 1945, and drafted clerks were reinstated to their old positions as fast as they were released from military service. Due to the post‑war high inflation rate and the increase in cost of living, annual salaries increased $1,370 between 1945 and 1949; travel allowance was increased also to $6.00 per day.
Finally, in 1949, the Post Office Department got around to giving what had been the Railway Mail Service a more appropriate name ‑‑ the Postal Transportation Service, or PTS Although this branch of the service had been in charge of all transit mail, some parts had little to do with railroads, although they were still the most important part of the service. In 1950, of the 32,000 clerks assigned to the PTS, only about 16,000 actually worked on trains. The remainder was in terminals, transfer offices, Air Mail Fields, Highway Post Offices, administrative offices, etc. Boat‑line RPOs, Trolley RPOs, and the Seapost Service had already been discontinued. The name of the Chief Clerk’s office was changed to District Superintendent’s office.
During the preceding decades, only one or two clerks per year had lost their lives in wrecks and several years saw no fatalities. When Pennsy’s crack “Red Arrow,” NY & Pitts Train 68, derailed in 1947 at Bennington Curve (West of Altoona, Pennsylvania), killing six clerks and badly injuring others, the whole country was shocked.
Even with all the trains that had been discontinued, the several round trips of RPO service on trunk lines, along with the expanded service and the star routes connecting the RPOs, maintained very good mail service through the 1950s. In the 1950s the Post Office Department turned the supervision of what had been the PTS Terminals over to the postmasters where the terminals were located.
The End of an Era
The next move by the Post Office Department, in 1960, was to put each PTS District Superintendent’s office under a postmaster, calling it the Mobile Unit Section, c/o Postmaster. This put all RPO clerks under postmasters. When there was no longer a surplus of RPO clerks from discontinued lines to fill vacancies on lines still operating, both subs and regulars from the post office roster were used. In 1963, the Sectional Center concept of transit mail service was announced, along with the ZIP coding of mail to make it work. Now it was just a matter of educating the public to use ZIP Codes on all mail. This made it possible to distribute all mail by numbers, a far cry from the knowledge that was necessary before. There was no place in the new set‑up for RPO service.
This development gave the railroads, knowing they were going to lose the mail revenue, an excuse to get out of the unprofitable passenger train business, something that they had wanted to do for years. After that, when a train was discontinued, instead of moving the RPO car on to another set of trains still operating, the RPO service was also discontinued. Within about four years there was only one round trip of RPO service left on practically all the trunk lines, and their value was minimal.
It came as no surprise to the railroads, or to the remaining RPO clerks, when on April 21, 1968, Assistant Postmaster General Hartigan issued a news release concerning RPO service. It stated that RPO cars on 162 passenger trains in the nation would be phased out of service prior to the end of the year, affecting 2,224 postal workers.
With one exception, the phasing out was a success. The New York & Wash RPO which covered the highest populated corridor in the nation continued to operate until 1977. It was on a part of this same line, between Philadelphia and Washington, that the first recorded “route agent” was assigned to accompany the mail, 140 years earlier. The Post Office Department continued to use regular scheduled Amtrak passenger trains for hauling of mail on this line.
On October 30, 1984, a “mail‑only” train service was inaugurated between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Mass., the timetable tailored specifically to meet the postal service requirements. The northbound train was named “The Fast Mail” and the southbound “The Mail Express.”
The RPO clerks who were furloughed in 1968, when the RPO service was discontinued, either retired or were placed in post offices at or near their homes. If there was no assignment in his grade at the post office assigned, the clerk was permitted to keep his higher grade for two years, after which he had to take a reduction.
Clarence R. Wilking – Copyright 2018 – The Railway Mail Service Library
Used with the kind permission of Dr. Frank R. Scheer - Dr. Scheer is the curator of The Railway Mail Service Library, Inc., which is located in the Boyce (Virginia) Depot . Email him at: email@example.com