Railway Post Office Clerks

From 1864 to 1977 America's Railway Post Office (RPO) clerks traveled across the country aboard rail cars processing & moving the nation's mail. They formed a lasting bond and camaraderie rarely seen today.

The National Postal Museum opened in 1993. It is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

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Mission: Americans Railway Post Office (RPO) clerks were the elite of the postal system. From 1864 to 1977, they traveled across the country aboard rickety rail cars in the pursuit of delivering mail to the masses. They courageously faced everything from unpredictable weather, robberies, and wrecks, all the while touting their motto “the mail must go through.” Amid the hardships, these clerks formed a lasting bond and camaraderie that is rarely seen in jobs today.

At about 2:30am on April 4, 1952, the eastbound Fast Mail train #28 overshot the siding near Ft. Belknap, MT. While the crew were reversing their train to correct the mistake, they were struck by the westbound Fast Mail train #27. The engineer and fireman of Fast Mail train #27 were killed. The engineer and fireman of train #28 as well as the conductor, front breakman and flagman of #27 were injured. There were 15 mail cars on board the two trains, amazingly, none of the mail clerks were injured in the crash.

In the early morning hours of May 7, 1893, just before 2 am, an eastbound passenger and mail train failed to stop and crashed into the Big Four train station in La Fayette, IN. The front cars left the track at the depot, tearing down the sheds on the eastern side of the railroad track. The engine, baggage, postal cars and express car were totally wrecked.

Ten individuals (on the train and the platform) died that morning. Three of the dead were mail clerks on the train: A.P. Chadwick of Shelbyville, IN, E.R. Myers of Walton, IN and Jesse H. Long of Lebanon, IN. John Lennon, a mail wagon driver waiting at the station for the train to exchange the mail was also killed in the crash. The other postal clerks were injured. J.N. Vockery of Cincinnati received a spinal injury. C.W. Carnahan of Oxford, OH received internal injuries and L.A. Wetheler of Sunman, IN was only slightly bruised. Faulty air brakes were blamed for the tragedy.

A group of robbers stopped the Southern Pacific Train #20 near Comstock, TX on April 28, 1898. The robbers ordered the engineer to separate the engine and express/mail car from the train. After traveling a few miles the thieves blew the express car safe but found nothing. They then riffled the registered mail bags and fled with only a few dollars. Mail agent C.L. Lippold had been the victim of a previous robbery attempt by the same trio.

After the robbers departed, the engineer reattached the train and proceeded into Comstock to report the robbery. While the thieves were not captured after this robbery, investigators determined that Tom Ketchum, Bud Upshaw and Dave Atkins were the culprits. The trio continued to rob trains, mostly in the southwest, until Ketchum’s capture in 1900.

The Ft. Worth & Denver City Railroad train left Denver at noon on April 4, 1900. The train was made up of 1st and 2nd class coaches, a café car, express, mail and baggage cars as well as a Pullman sleeper. Just before 4am on April 5, just south of Magenta, TX, the train, running at full speed, struck a defect in the track that was determined to have been caused by a partial washout. The train ran off the track and cars piled on top of each other. A fire started in the wreck and passengers and crew scrambled out of the cars to safety. Many were burned in their escape.

Sadly, 29-year-old mail clerk John Frank Dane of Denver was trapped beneath the wreckage and burned to death. Astonishingly, only one other person was killed in the horrendous crash, passenger John Kountze of New Mexico, who was traveling to visit his mother in Texas.

From the 1924 “Postal Laws and Regulations”
Railway Mail Clerks shall not be required to wear any uniform other than a cap or badge.

But there were strict rules for the badges.

Every railway postal clerk, except those assigned to clerical duty in offices of superintendents and chief clerks, shall wear this badge on the outside of the outer garment, over the left breast, during the entire time he is on duty. Clerks shall keep their badges in good condition and turn them in with other Government property when leaving the service. A record of all badges, with the names of the clerks holding them, shall be kept by each division superintendent or chief clerk.

Given the number of badges the museum has received over the years from RPO clerks, we know that not all clerks turned their badges in when they left the service. Many were kept as mementos of a job they were proud to have held.

On February 7, 1901, a passenger and mail car jumped the track near Greenville, PA while rounding a sharp curve. Most of those killed and injured were in the smoking car, which was telescoped by the steel mail car. Early reports had 15 passengers killed in the accident, later reports took that number down to six. The “Morning World-Herald” of Omaha, NE referred the mail car telescoping the smoking car as “if it was paper tearing, crushing, maiming and carrying death.” When the train jumped the tracks some of the cars plowed into a steep hill before falling on their sides. Mail clerks C.H. Crafts, F.E. Coe and J.F. Russell were all injured, but survived, as did the mail.

For decades the Post Office Department asked railway companies to provide them with steel, not wooden mail cars, as their clerks were being killed and injured in high numbers in the more fragile wooden cars. As this accident showed, the steel car protected the mail clerks, but unfortunately in the accident that car proved deadly to those in another.

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum is excited to be open again. We enjoy bringing you the images and stories of some of America's bravest and most interesting workers - Railway Post Office Clerks.

[01/11/19]   Due to the #GovernmentShutdown, Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed. We will update our operating status as soon as the situation is resolved. We do not plan to update social media other than to inform you of our operating status.

Could you pass the 1917 Railway Mail Clerk test? While you’re taking some time away from the relatives, try your hand at some of the questions. You have until Christmas Day.
Good luck!

1. What is the limit of weight that may be placed in a sack?

2. What is the limit of weight of mail placed in a catcher pouch?

3. What is the meaning of the term “nixie?”

4. How often shall clerks be examined on Book of Instructions?

5. What color of ink will be used in cancelling stamps?

6. Shall clerks make note of or report the movements of post office inspectors?

7. Are postal employees exempt from jury duty by reason of their employment?

Life on the mail cars 100 years ago:

• The distribution of circulars & catalogues has been eliminated from working mail cars, distribution being done in post offices & terminals. Distribution work on trains concentrated now on letters and daily newspapers. Result is even though mail volume has increased, has been less “stuck” mail than ever before.
• The increase of steel car construction for the safety of the clerks. In past five years the number of wooden mail working cars reduced from 3,444 to 718. Steel underframe cars increased from 322 to 762; and wholly steel cars increased from 354 to 2,002.
• There are 19,683 employees in the Railway Mail Service, with an average salary of $1,654.
• The return from military duty (following World War I) of many former employees was followed by a marked improvement in the efficiency of the service.

Oral Histories

Life as a RPO clerk could be rough on families when they were away for holidays like Thanksgiving. As clerk Walter Bell tells us in one of the RPO clerk interviews available on our website:

INTERVIEWER: How did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?
Walter Bell: Well, what happened was -- the way it worked, for example, when I was a regular on the New York and Chicago East Division, I would work six days, I was off eight days.
INTERVIEWER: And so, I take it your family took it very well?
Walter Bell: Yes, my wife and the kids, of course, like I said, they liked it because their father was home with them more than most fathers so they liked it. What they didn’t like about it of course, we had to work holidays and so sometimes I was away from them on Christmas or Thanksgiving, stuff like that. But then it was made up by the time I would be off for the week off.

postalmuseum.si.edu In the summer of 2007 the Smithsonian National Postal Museum began contacting surviving Railway Post Office clerks in preparation of creating a historical record of the service and its workers within the museum. Approximately 200 clerks responded to the preliminary inquiry. Since that summer, museum...

US streetcar mail service came to an end when the last running route was discontinued on this date in Baltimore, MD in 1929. The service had begun in 1891 in St. Louis, MO. By the end of 1895 Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. were using mail trolleys. Baltimore began using the service in 1897.

The turn of the last century brought many changes affecting mail transportation and delivery. Pneumatic tubes sped mail underground. In 1913 the Post Office rolled out Parcel Post Service, allowing packages up to 50 pounds in the mail, trucks to carry all that mail. The end of Railway Post Office trolley cars was in sight. San Francisco stopped the service in 1906. New York postal officials put an end to trolley mail service in 1900, Rochester in 1909. The service ended in most of the remaining cities between 1913 and 1919.

On October 7, 1893, the Rock Island Railroad #9 passenger train smashed into a freight train at Keats, near Manhattan, KS at 11:45 p.m. N.J. Lancaster was alone in the mail car. When the train collided with a fast moving freight train, he was killed when the mail car burned. Lancaster was the only casualty of the crash. Railway Post Office cars were often located right behind the tinder, and were susceptible to great damage in wrecks. The Guthrie, OK Daily Leader was on top of the story but misstated the clerk’s name, a correction they made in the next day’s paper.

A lovely 19th century lithograph, "Night scene at an American railway junction" by Currier & Ives, c. 1876. Depicted in the scene are the Lightning Express, Flying Mail, and Owl Trains.

[09/06/18]   The mail franking privilege has been in fairly regular existence since the start of the U.S. postal system. Occasional stories about abuses to the privilege (allowing Members of Congress to send items through the mail for free) caused public uproars about the practice, but things often fell back to normal. On December 16, 1899 “Harper’s Weekly” mentioned some of the abuses that had caused, in 1873, such an outroar that the system was abolished until 1891.

Among the stories were those of abuse of the Railway Post Office service. Some members regularly mailed their laundry home and had it returned, all at government expense. One congressman was said to have tried to ship a horse in a postal car with a Congressional frank tagged to it.

While the story of the horse in the mail car was not the straw that broke the franking privilege back that year, it certainly helped draw public attention to the problem.

Happy 25th Anniversary to the National Postal Museum. Continuing to tell the story of America's Railway Mail Clerks.

Two trains carrying passengers and mail collided on the Texas and Pacific railroad near Queen City, Texas on the evening of July 23, 1894. The crash between the north and southbound Cannon Ball trains reduced the mail and baggage cars of both trains to shattered pieces. Both trains were running at their full speed of 40mph while passing around a sharp curve. The collision was blamed on variations of time of the engineers’ watches, sadly not an uncommon reason for train crashes of that period.

Among those killed in the crash were mail clerks Minet Voltz, Charles Holland, and Edward Atenogenes Varea Bee. Voltz and Holland’s families were from San Antonio, Bee had been born in Mexico. Clerk Charles Bean was severely injured. Bean had been the sole surviving postal clerk from the wreck, but his injuries were severe and affected his mental state. His body was discovered near Shinor, Texas the following February, Bean having died from exposure.

Mail By Rail

Forty-one years ago the Railway Mail Service ended with the last run of the New York – Washington train. The service between the two cities had been the only Railway Mail Service train still in operation after 1972. On the final run New York train #4 left Union Station in Washington at 10 pm, stopped at Baltimore around 11 pm and arrived in Pennsylvania Station at 2:50 am. The southbound train left New York at 11:40 pm and arrived into Washington just after 3 am. One of the clerks on board the last train, Winston Lark, was among the clerks who appear in a video produced by the museum in 1993. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnGfWw7Bgu0.

Filmed in 1993, Mail By Rail is the story of the Railway Post Office clerks, as told by four ex RPO clerks, Tom Clifton, Harold Coffman, Winston Lark and Don...

Unlike the original "Fast Mail" trains that carried just mail, later trains with that moniker took passengers and were advertised for their speed and reliability. In this instance the train ran from Minneapolis to Milwaukee and Chicago and offered a powerful spotlight on the observation car that would illuminate the Mississippi River during the night ride.

A pretty nifty ride used to move mail across to the train cars for loading. If anyone has one of these in their basement be sure to contact the museum and we might just be willing to take it off your hands!

At 45, Daniel W. Deardorff was one of the oldest mail clerks in the service in 1900. He died in a fall from his RPO car while the train was going about 60 mph. The train had just passed the Hagerstown, IN station. According to witnesses, he had just thrown the mail pouch from the door when he appeared to slip and fall to the ground. He left a wife and 14-year-old daughter. Deardorff was on one of his last runs as he was about to be promoted to division superintendent.

For those who know of Owney, you know that he was given tags to commemorate his travels. As the mascot of the Railway Mail Service, of course Owney received his share of tags from his Railway Clerk friends. (For those who don't know about Owney, you can learn about him here: https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/current/moving-the-mail/mail-by-rail/owney-mascot-of-the-railway-mail-service/all-about-owney/index.html).

Advertisement from the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, touting its “Fast Mail” service. The company touted its mail trains because businesses understood that mail trains moved faster and kept to schedules better than other trains. The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway was a combination of the Lake Shore Railway, Michigan Southern, Northern Indiana and Lake Shore railroads. The combined route included a route from Buffalo, NY to Chicago, IL as well as railroads to Boston, New York and other prominent eastern cities.

Typical day on the RPO - a whole lot of mail taking up a whole lot of space. This was taken in December 1955.

Diagram of a mail crane used on the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railroad.


Oral Histories

For those who have a few extra hours during the coming holidays (after all, how many presents can anyone unwrap, or bowl games watch?) - if you have not yet sampled the museum's collection of RPO clerk oral histories, now is a good time to enjoy them. These stories were collected from clerks in 2007.

postalmuseum.si.edu In the summer of 2007 the Smithsonian National Postal Museum began contacting surviving Railway Post Office clerks in preparation of creating a historical record of the service and its workers within the museum. Approximately 200 clerks responded to the preliminary inquiry. Since that summer, museum...

St. Louis’ Postmaster John B. Harlow started putting clerks into trolley cars to cancel mail while they moved on December 5, 1892. Brooklyn, NY followed, inaugurating its service in 1894. Mail trolley cars were painted white to stand out. In some cities, street collection boxes at some intersections were also painted white – designating them for use in conjunction with the trolleys. By the end of 1895 Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. were using mail trolleys. Seventy-five clerks worked on mail trolley cars, handling more than 500,000 pieces of mail a day.

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