Bryant Alden Long.

Mail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service online

. (page 10 of 38)
Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 10 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


this point. Additional weight to this theory is given by
certain postmarks, but they could not be conclusive without
data as to the time of arrival of the envelope postmarked on
a certain date, proving that letter hadn't time enough to pass
through its usual D.P.O.

In all, the route-agent epoch of the mail service was a spec-
tacular one. The route usually, but not always, coincided
with the corporate name of the railroad. Detailed lists of
such route postmarks have appeared in Konwiser's Stampless
Cover Catalog and in Norona's Cyclopedia of U. S. Postmarks
and Postal History (in New England, by Hall). Dr. Carroll
Chase has listed 161 different route markings of agents, the
collecting of which has become an important branch of
philately. Solely on the basis of such postmarks, researchers
like B. B. Adams and Seymour Dunbar have declared the
Boston Sc Albany route (1852) or the Phila.— Washington
"Potomac Postal Cars" (1862, before Davis's run), respective-
ly, to have been "our first R.P.O."; but all evidence indicates
that only ordinary agent service was involved.

The number of agents jumped from 47 in 1847 to 295 in
1855, and to 862 by 1873— for agents were used on branch
lines well after the advent of the R.M.S, (until 1882, though
cancels are known up to 1888), and, conversely, thirteen of
the D.P.O.s were discontinued by 1859. Some of the D.P.O.
clerks were detailed to the agent runs to make proper separa-
tion for connecting roads for immediate dispatch at termini.
Official observers sent in 1840 and 1848 to report on the
British Traveling Post Office returned with adverse recom-
mendations thereon, pleading excuses such as "our rougher
trains"; but the idea was catching hold, for even Eastern
offices were by-passing D.P.O.s to pouch on Midwestern
routes like the Logansport & Peoria Agent and the Dayton &
Michigan Agent in late pre-R.M.S. days. With letters lying
in the Chicago D.P.O. untouched for two weeks, and with
other delays "causing untold evils, bankruptcy, estrange-
ments, crimes . . .," there was a crying need for reform.

Chapter 7


The guests do ride serene inside the air-conditioned train;
It matters not if cold or hot, if sunshine, snow, or rain;
The mail clerks sweat and fume and fret, their eyes all

full of grime.
Their backs do ache, their muscles quake, but mails go

thro' on time.
When maiden fair with flaxen hair receives her billet doux.
She little knows how much she owes to men who brought

it through . . .

— S. C. Arnold

The difficulties derived from the Dis-
tributing Post Office and the wrapping and
post-billing of letters vanished in a rela-
tively few years after the establishment of
Railway Post Offices in the 1860s. Oddly
enough, a mooted question later arose over
— Courtesy A. G. •^vho was the founder or father of the Rail-
Hall, and S.P.A. ^y^y jyj^-j ^^^ ^j^^j. ^^^^ ^^^ f^j.gj. "Raii^vay

Post Office." Twenty years after the estab-
lishment of the service which is noAv the P.T.S., and ten years
after the death of the principal actors in the drama, heirs of
one of them raised the question of recognition or credit. An
attempt was made by the Post Office Department then to
ascertain the facts. The result was a so-called "official history,"
now known as Executive Document No. 20 of the 48th Con-
gress, 2nd Session, or as Maynard's History of the Railway
Mail Service. This research was not conclusive, owing to the
loss of records by fire and to the failure of the investigators to



define the terms "First Railway Post Office" and "Railvay
Mail Service." Many of the men questioned could not re-
member clearly what had passed and, of course, each wished
to give all credit possible to his friends.

Recent research has brought to light some significant new
source material, and it is now easier to trace the evolution of
route-agent service to railway postal service. 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. Of these the mileage
was: steamboat, 7,278; railroads, 22,666; stage and sulky,
109,278 miles. While less numerous in mileage than the
"star" routes of "certainty, celerity, and security," as the
horse routes were dubbed,^ railroad transportation of mails
was more important because it and the boat lines were the
bis: arteries which fed the horse routes. These railroad routes
at first formed an unorganized and unattached service loosely
related to the Post Office Department, to local congressmen,
and to the terminal distributing post offices. Technically
they were given some supervision by the nearest large dis-
tributing post office, in addition to some general instructions
from Washington. And the D.P.O.'s at fast-growing cities
like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago were still railway
mail's worst problem when the War between the States burst
on the scene.

Congestion of army mail now posed an especially difficult
problem at Cairo, Illinois, where both land and naval forces
were assembling. Cairo was made a "Distributing Post
Office," and special agents and extra clerks were rushed there
to attack the mountains of mail piling up around station and
post office. Among the special agents who came was George
B. Armstrong, Assistant Postmaster at Chicago, in charge of
its distributing post office. In lieu of a formal organization in
transit mail service, the men in charge of large "Dis" offices,
such as Clark of New York, Wheeler of Cleveland, and Arm-
strong of Chicago, were conceded technical authority in a

^The three words were indicated as •♦• in old ofiQcial records.


large radius from their offices. So it was that Armstrong
assumed charge of the mail situation at Cairo. There, with
the co-operation of the Cairo postmaster, of General Grant,
and of naval officers, by early 1862 the mail was received and
dispatched with surprising order and speed. In recognition
of this initiative, the clerks at Cairo presented Mr. Armstrong
with a gold watch for his wife, and the contacts he made with
General Grant and other officials were a great aid in his later
plans for reorganizing railway mail, which as early as 1854
had included the statement, "We should put the post office
on wheels."

Unfortunately, we do not have a good record of the exact
special services that were performed at Cairo in this terminal
emergency. Since special agents carried keys to the brass-
locked pouches for their inspectorial duties, it is most prob-
able that they opened and took out, in this war emergency,
through mail for points beyond Cairo. If they didn't have
the "Dis" mail for Cairo sorted before that point Avas reached,
our information that "mail for Commodore Porter was de-
livered as soon as a passenger could have made the trip" is
an exaggeration. However, if proof is found that Armstrong
did have this advanced opening of the "Dis" mails per-
formed on the Illinois Central in May of 1862, that would
not constitute the first "railway post office"— as we shall see
when we examine "mail reform" later— but it would antedate
considerably the experiment on the "Hannibal & St. Joe
R.R." (now CB&:Q) now to be considered.

This celebrated variant of the route-agent system was au-
thorized on the Hannibal &: St. Joseph R.R., July 7, 1862,
to meet an emergency caused by a close connection at St.
Joseph, Missouri, with the pony express established two years
before. The road completed in 1859 bade fair to become the
main mail artery westward, after a remarkable run by a
famous wood-burning engine, the brass-trimmed Missouri,
which ran the 206 miles in four hours. The overland mail
was delayed in the St. Joseph Distributing Post Office, and
William A. Davis conceived the idea of deadheading east,
boarding the westbound trains and taking out from the


D.P.O. pouches those packets bearing the heavy pony express
charges for California. When Davis— local assistant post-
master and once postmaster at Richmond, Virginia— received
necessary permission, the pony express was discontinued; but
there was still a need for the experiment. There had been
a route agent on the line, but in 1861 guerrillas had burned
the bridge over the Platte River, wrecking the train and
killing the agent, Martin Fields, who wasn't replaced.

The railroad company furnished a baggage car, altered as
requested by Davis, which was similar to a route agent's car;
it was provided with a table and a case of sixty-five pigeon-
holes, but had no pouch rack. Davis deadheaded east and on
July 26, 1862, boarded the westbound train at Palmyra,
Missouri, with "authority to open the brass-lock sacks and
the St. Joseph distributing post office packages, taking there-
from all the California letters, going by the overland stage
route. These letters were made up precisely as they would
have been at our office." This was the description made by
a later assistant postmaster there— Barton— who, along with a
special agent (A. B. Waller), made the trip starting this serv-
ice. For a time Barton and Waller, together with Fred
Harvey, ran as clerks in alternate directions. They were said
to have had a postmarker, but no cancellation by it is now
known. Davis was paid at the rate of $100 per month.

The route was harassed by guerrillas and lack of mainte-
nance, resulting in several suspensions in 1862 and abandon-
ment of the work on January 19, 1863 (or 1865). After the
war a railway post office was established on the line— the
present Chicago & Kansas City R.P.O. (CB&Q), which is
called "The Hannibal" to this day. Historically this was an
interesting service, and high authorities say that the Fred
Harvey involved was the one who later founded the great
restaurant chain of that name, although one investigation cast
doubt on this. With regard to evaluation of the Hannibal &:
St. Joe's significance a bit later, it is interesting to note part
of Davis's orders from Washington:

"It is desired that the work be done as part of the business
of your office; the car for this purpose to be considered a


room in the office, the bills to be made out and accounts to
be kept as at present in the name of the office . . . and the
monthly returns made to this office of letters and papers sent
and received . . ."

According to the Burlington, Davis used a local case
for sorting of way mails also, and his car was lettered
"U. S. MAIL— NO. 1" and had one side door in the center
of its vertical-clapboard sides, a tiny window on each, open
platforms, and raised roof.

Some have asserted that our service was patterned after
England's; but while there were parallel developments, there
was no known copying. We received no specific suggested im-
provements from the two missions sent over there. What we
did receive from England, however, was a definite stimulus
for progressive service.

Connected with the Post Office Department in Washington
were several men who caught this reform spirit. H. A. Burr
and A. N. Zevely were among them. George Buchannan
Armstrong was likewise a former employee in Washington.
His mother was a Buchannan, and it was her relationship to
Senator Buchanan, the future President, that caused her to
immigrate to America and her son later to secure a position
as a clerk in the Contract Office of the Post Office Department.
For this deep interest in the technical side of mail handling,
he was recommended by his superiors to go to Chicago in
1854 for a mail emergency there, when that city was suffering
growing pains. It was while there that he became unofficial
supervisor of route agents in a large radius and went to Cairo
for the emergency of early 1862.

Later, when the "official history" was being written, a
department employee, H. J. Johnson, claimed that the top-
ographer, H. A. Burr, had first suggested to Armstrong the
putting of mail distribution "on wheels." Without detract-
ing from the contribution of Burr, who had developed
schemes of distribution for D.P.O. clerks, it may be said that
neither Burr nor Armstrong himself, had thought out yet the
plans adopted by Armstrong in 1864. Armstrong's first pros-
pectus in early spring of 1864, even, underwent much change


before it evolved into his railway post office by August twenty-
eighth. Reports of Canada's "T.P.O. cars," sorting mails at
less cost than our closed cars, may have hastened the idea.*

No^v the war emergency drove Armstrong, Zevely, Clark,
and Wheeler into a consideration of the complete problem of
transit mail, a real study of "mail reform." Of all of these,
the writing of only one, Armstrong, shows that he got to the
bottom of the problem. In the eastern part of the country
the problem was different and the demand for reform was
different. The cause of most of the trouble was not delay of
mails going through the "Dis," but rather delay in separating
from the "Dis" letters arriving at New York, Washington, and
Philadelphia for local delivery. In early 1864, Mr. Zevely
took some clerks from the New York Post Office and made a
few experimental trips in one direction; i.e., running into
New York. This was no doubt the first experiment with
working "city" mail on the cars; i.e., separating, on the train,
mail for the city into substations and carriers for immediate
delivery upon arrival. A meeting of postal officials was held
in Cleveland the previous year, which emphasized the need
of "postal reform" and gave the severest castigation that is
on the record to the delays and abuses in the Distributing
Post Offices, explaining how letters were sent by circuitous
routings in order that more "Dis" offices would get com-
missions for redistribution.

Letters were subjected to so many distributions as entirely
to absorb the postage charged upon them, and in some cases
the distribution commission of a postmaster largely exceeded
the whole proceeds of his office. Even when no abuse was
practiced, a large portion of the correspondence of the coun-
try paid an unnecessary tax of 25 per cent, besides the regular
commission of 40, 50, or 60 per cent to which the mailing
office was entitled. For instance, a hundred letters, on which
the postage was three dollars, originating in small offices in
Ohio and west of Pittsburgh, and destined for New England,
were sent to Pittsburgh for distribution and there subjected

"Postmaster General's Report, Washington, 1859.


to a commission of 121/9 per cent; from Pittsburgh they were
sent to New York or Boston, and there chargjed with a second
commission of 12 1/4 per cent, and then forwarded to destina-
tion. Assuming the average commission taken at the mailing
to be 50 per cent, this three dollars' worth of letters paid a tax
of 75 per cent in the shape of commissions while passing
through the mail, or $2.25 out of $3. The delay was costly
and annoying.

One amusing story of how Armstrong originated our R.P.O.
states that one winter in 1856 the postmaster at Ontonagon,
Michigan, opened a long-delayed mail pouch from Chicago-
only to find a lively family of mice ensconced in the mail: the
parents and four offspring! (Another version says it was two
rats, sent in a parcel, which mutiplied.) The indignant post-
master is said to have reported the facts to Armstrong, who
agreed that such appalling delays must be eliminated and the
mails speeded sufficiently to prevent mice breeding in transit.
But, as we know, he had suggested R.P.O.s two years before.

A. N. Zevely was chosen to have charge of experiments
with postal "reformx." He wrote various railroad officials in
the spring of 1864, asking that special cars be prepared for
experiments with "traveling post offices." Except for appar-
ently wanting distribution on the cars, he seemed to have
hazy ideas as to the technical improvements wanted. But he
gave a sympathetic hearing to Armstrong, who made several
trips to Washington to talk up general "reforms." The re-
sult was that Zevely asked Armstrong to put his plan in writ-
ing and submit it to Washington. This was done in three
letters, the first dated May tenth.

Armstrong proposed three basic changes. First, he wanted
all possible direct mailing to "Dis" offices discontinued; this
meant no more wrapping up of letters. Second, he proposed
the reclassification of all post offices to show which were ter-
minals, which star routes, and so on. The third was a system
of Traveling Post Offices, which, while most important of the
three, would be useless ivithout the other two reforms.

In short, Armstrong, after classifying offices and dispensing
with the wrappers which often had errors within, would have


all letters for the same office or connection tied up in a pack-
age. If they were all for the same office, he would have a plain-
ly addressed letter on the top of the package, a modern direct
package. Since all letters were not yet postage prepayed with
stamps, he provided for continuation of the post-billing, but
simplified the system, hi fine, his plan called for a melting
down of the old system to mold anew the dispatching of mail
via the railroads, which were building a network around Chi-
cago and extending all over the Midwest. The traveling post
office, he thought, would be the climax of it all. He said:

But the main feature of the plan, which, after its in-
troduction and final adoption to the service, would un-
doubtedly lead to the most important results, is the sys-
tem of railway distribution. To carry out the true theor)'
of postal service, there should be no interruption in the
transit of letters in the mail, and, therefore, as little com-
plication in the necessary internal machinery of a postal
system as possible, to the end that letters deposited in the
post office at the last moment of the departure of the
mails from the office for near or distant places should
travel with the same uninterrupted speed as passengers
to their places of destination as often as contracts with
the Department for the transportation of the mails per-
mit. It is well known to the public that passengers, travel-
ing over railroad routes, generally reach a given point
in advance of letters; when to that given point letters
must pass, under the present system, through a distribut-
ing office, as is largely the case now, the tardiness of a
letter's progress toward its place of destination is pro-
portionately increased. But a general system of railway
distribution obviates this difficulty. The work being
done while the cars are in action, and transfers of mail
made from route to route, and for local deliveries on the
way as they are reached, letters gain the same celerity in
transit as persons making direct connections.

Soon after sending in his letters on postal reform, Arm-
strong had them published in pamphlet form for distribution
to all who would read them. A meeting of experts was called
at Washington in June, and there the consensus was to put


some kind of traveling post office in operation in spite of the
indifference of Congress, opposition of the Contract Office,
and the ridicule of businessmen. With the exception of Arm-
strong, nobody seemed to have a definite idea of what they
were going to do; but he was trusted completely by A. N.
Zevely, Third Assistant, who got permission from Postmaster
General Montgomery Blair for Armstrong to try out his ideas.
On July first the following was sent to Armstrong:


You are authorized to test by actual experience, upon
such railroad route or routes as you may select at Chicago,
the plans proposed by you for simplifying the mail ser-
vice. You will arrange with the railroad companies to
furnish suitable cars for traveling post offices; designate
"head offices" with their dependent offices; prepare forms
of blanks and instructions for all such offices, and those
on the railroad not "head offices"; also for the clerks of
traveling post offices . . . To aid you in this work, you
may select some suitable route agent, whose place can be
supplied by a substitute, at the expense of the Depart-
ment. When your arrangements are complete you will
report them in full.

George B. Armstrong

Chicago, Illinois

M. Blair
Postmaster General

The Department also acted upon the essentials of the other
parts of the Armstrong plan. Orders Avere sent for reclassify-
ing offices, discontinuing wrapping packets, and simplify-
ing post-billing. Post offices were asked to make up letters in
packages addressed to the post office on wheels with the near-
est offices on the line marked No. 1, the next few offices
No. 2, and farther ones No. 3, so that mail clerks could do
first things first. Correspondence between Zevely and Arm-
strong on August sixteenth indicated preparations Avere about
completed and, incidentally, revealed the naming of the new
service. Zevely said, "I also have to say that I have ignored
the name 'traveling post office' and have adopted 'U. S.


Railway Post Office.' This term was adopted; and, with the
addition of the word "Mail" after "United States," is still
in use today. Just before this Zevely had asked the Camden
& Amboy to prepare for R.P.O. service.

Armstrong arranged with General Superintendent G. L.
Dunlap, of the C&NW R.R., to remodel a route agent's
car. Letter cases with seventy-seven boxes each were bor-
rowed from the Chicago D.F.O. and installed at angles. The
car was about forty feet long, with two windows, upper deck
lights, oil lamps, and no end doors. Armstrong arranged
with the Chicago Times for publicity on his experiment,
giving them the date when he would start the service from
Chicago to Clinton, Iowa. He secured Harrison Parks, a
route agent on the run to Centralia, and two Chicago D.P.O.
clerks, Percy A. Leonard and James Converse, for the letter
end of his car, and Asa F. Bradley to assort papers in a crude
case of big 10x12 inch boxes. Leonard and Bradley were
East States experts.

And so, on August 28, 1864, this "United States Railway
Post Office" left Chicago with its crew and some business
and newspaper men who went as far as Dixon, Illinois.
Among the visitors were editor James Medill, of the Chicago
Tribune, and Captain James E. White, later long-time gen-
eral superintendent of the Railway Mail Service. A canceler,
probably reading simply "Chicago to Clinton," was used.
The route was but slightly different from that of today's
Chicago & Omaha R.P.O. ; it was the old "Dixon Air Line,"
originally the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (Chicago's
first) which made a wide circuit through Danby (Glen Ellyn)
and then veered westward toward the Mississippi River. A
little No. 1 mail was carried by, owing to strangeness of the
case, but mail was worked on the trip with surprising ease
and efficiency. The trip was rather rough, according to Mr.
Medill, who was at first skeptical. When asked for an opin-
ion, he said, "Why, Mr. Armstrong, your plan is the craziest
idea I ever heard of in regard to mail distribution. If it were
to be generally accepted by the Post Office Department, the
government would have to employ a regiment of soldiers to


follow the cars and pick up the letters that would blow out
of the train." Later he became an enthusiastic backer of the
new service. The clerks sorted through mails direct to con-
necting services in addition to local exchanges.

Very soon, other lines were started and a form of national
organization developed. The first plan, December 1864, was
to divide the nation at the Indiana border and place Arm-
strong in charge of the territory west of the line and Wheeler
east. The country was divided into divisions and the service
placed under a General Superintendent of the Railway Mail
Service, George B. Armstrong becoming the first incumbent.
Wheeler resigned on December 20; and Parks— the pioneer
R.P.O. clerk— succeeded him.

Mr. Armstrong lived to see his ideas developed fully, re-
signed in May 1871, and died a few days later. In Chicago a
large school building bears his name, and in the Adams Street
entrance to the old Chicago Post Office there was placed a
monument and bust. It bears the following inscription:

To The Memory



Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 10 of 38)