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Founder

of the

RAILWAY MAIL SERVICE

in the

UNITED STATES

Born in Armach, Ireland

Oct. 27, 1822

Erected

By the clerks

IN THE SERVICE

1881

A duplicate is in P.T.S. headquarters in Washington.

In addition, a bronze plaque in honor of Armstrong was
installed by President Hughitt of the Chicago & Northwestern



114 MAIL BY RAIL

Railroad in November 1914 in their station at Chicago to
commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Service. It
shows a bas-relief of the first R.P.O. cars, and a duplicate
is on Armstrong's grave in Rosehill Cemetery there.

Soon after the death of Armstrong, the heirs of William
Davis, who had died in 1875, put in a claim to the Post Office
Department for priority for their father as the initiator of
the Railway Mail Service. Davis himself, after his three
months' service deadheading east to take from westbound
trains California letters for close connection with the stage
at St. Joseph, had returned to his duties as assistant post-
master there and never claimed any recognition for his
services on the railway. The Maynard investigation turned
up some interesting data and many erroneous statements.
Few knew how to interpret the documents, and the net result
was more confusion. The Armstrong family later published
for private circulation a volume claiming exclusive credit to
George B. Armstrong as the father of the Raihvay Mail
Service. Since then this mooted question has become a
perennial for postal writers, and especially for the rapidly
growing philatelic journals. In addition to the Armstrong
and Davis schools of interpretation there promises to be a
new one, that of the Chicago & Cairo claimants, not to men-
tion the Boston & Albany and Potomac Postal Cars claims
already refuted.

A brief statement of these schools of interpretation is now
in order, so that the reader may take his choice.

To Armstrong is conceded the founding of the "first
permanent, complete, and official Railway Mail Service,"
through his postal-reform letters and his run from Chicago
to Clinton, August 28, 1864. The Davis school claims that
Davis's run from Palmyra to St. Joseph back in 1862 consti-
tuted the first experimental railway post office because he was
the first to open, officially, brass-locked sacks and take out
mail in transit to be advanced past a distributing post office.
The Armstrong school says if this constituted "sorting mail
in transit," route agents had sorted in transit for years, be-
sides performing local delivery and reception of way mail.



AMERICA'S FIRST RAILWAY POST OFFICE 115

The Davis school of historians rests its case by asserting that
unless and until record is found of earlier authorization for
opening brass-locked sacks and taking out letters for beyond
a D.P.O., the Hannibal & St. Joe service constitutes the
"first experimental railway post office." Journalistic writers
of this school make broader claims, as we shall see. The
Armstrong adherents deny to Davis any invention, and cer-
tainly not the foundation of a service, because Davis was only
■'a special agent" and took out only California letters. They
cite records of route agents pouching to other route agents
beyond a terminal and a D.P.O. via the express route agents;
they say that the service of Davis was only a special service
such as Armstrong had performed at Cairo, and the fact that
it was soon discontinued eliminated him from being the
founder of any railway mail service. They say Davis, as a
special agent, sought to aid in an emergency in his distrib-
uting post office, while Armstrong sought to and did destroy
all distributing post offices in order to initiate the Railway
Mail Service.

Davis writers in popular and philatelic journals have made
far wider claims than Davis historians. Articles have ap-
peared, based on the Maynard document, headed "U. S.
Mail First Sorted in Transit in 1862," 'Tirst R.P.O. Line in
History was between Hannibal & St. Joseph," "Wm. Davis
W^as the Father of the Railway Mail Service," etcetera. In
1905 the legislature of Missouri appropriated seven hundred
dollars for a tablet in the St. Joseph Post Office in memory
of Davis, and a number of biographical sketches give him
credit for founding the Railway Mail Service.

As for the Chicago and Cairo theory, it will be recalled
that before the Hannibal & St. Joe work by Davis, a situa-
tion at Cairo, Illinois, has resulted in a special service
being performed there. Special agents worked into Cairo
and undoubtedly took out mail from the newly established
Cairo Distributing Post Office for the Army of the Tennessee.
No record has been found of orders to special agents to open
brass-locked pouches which route agents carried, perhaps
because the Chicago fire destroyed the route-agent records



116 MAIL BY RAIL

of that region. But it is possible that such may be found, in
which case the course of the "firsts" discussion would be
radically changed.

The following is taken from the Post Office Department
Information Service Bulletin for January 1950; it may help
close the chapter, but not the argument:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
POSTAL SERVICE

Up until 1862 all mail carried on trains was distributed
in post offices. In that year the postmaster at St. Joseph,
Missouri, tried out a method of sorting and distributing
mail on a moving train between Hannibal and St. Joseph.
This was done in an attempt to avoid delays in mail de-
partures for the West. The experiment was successful.
In 1864 the first officially sponsored test of a railway post
office car was made on August 28 between Chicago,
Illinois, and Clinton, Iowa. On December 22 of that
year the Post Office Department appointed a deputy in
charge of railway post offices and railway mails. This
marked the beginning of the Railway Mail Service.

As a final summation of the two viewpoints, we might add
that Davis supporters base their claims on his service having
apparently been (1) the first line to distribute raw, unsorted
mails for a state at a great distance— California; (2) the first
distributing route to be authorized by special order from
Washington as a new departure from route-agent service,
although local exchanges were performed as on modern
R.P.O.s; and (3) so far as is known, the first line officially
authorized to open brass-locked pouches for distribution
purposes. They further point out that the Post Office De-
partment decided after recent studies that the Davis experi-
ment was the beginning of R.P.O. service, as witness the
carved date on the new Department building (Chapter 3); that
the History of R.M.S. states that no earlier example of transit
distribution of the through mails has been revealed after
a "thorough search" of records; and that Railway Mail Asso-
ciation (N.P.T.A.) members at Chicago officially concluded



AMERICA'S FIRST RAILWAY POST OFFICE 117

that this line was the first R.P.O. and said so in a plaque
which they installed in the Burlington's replica. Some of
Davis's more rabid early supporters even claimed that eras-
ures and changes were made before publishing the History
of the R.M.S., to throw major credit to Armstrong. Refuting
claims that Topographer Burr had suggested the idea to
W'^aller and Davis, one points out that Zevely himself stated
it was Davis's own idea.

In rebuttal, Armstrong supporters point out that only on
the Chicago &: Clinton car were the full functions of a rail-
way post office carried out. Pouches and sacks had been made
up and addressed to the line (not done in Davis's case); its
clerks had opened them to cut and work up the packages
of individual letters for local dispatch and had made up
mails for crossing star routes and points beyond termini.
They were ready to make up mails for other R.P.O.s as soon
as established, and probably did it for agent connections from
the first day. Armstrong adherents deny claims that Davis
ever sorted individual letters— despite public mailboxes
shown on the car replica— stating that his distribution con-
sisted of packet sorting, or possibly of opening packets of
"St. Joseph Dis" but merely separating California points into
new packets to be rebilled while seated at the table; they
conclude that his operations in no way resembled those of
an R. P. O. letter clerk. And so rests the case of a controversy
unique in postal history, still going merrily on.



Chapter 8




THE RAILWAY MAIL COMES OF AGE



In a country wild and Western, red with many a crimson stain,
There's a city, name of Carson, 'twixt the foothills and the plain.
And the treasured lore of Carson holds a legendary tale
That deals with Baldy Baker and the "Dwight & Carson" mail.
Baldy Baker was a mail clerk on the Dwight & Carson then,
Tall, straight and strong and fearless, weighing 14 stone and 10 . .-

— Earl L. Newton



The impact of the first Rail-
way Post Office upon the post-
al service and the national
economy was but a small one
at the time, subject to discour-
aging counterblo^vs; but Arm-
strong and Zevely went deter-
-Courtesy Postal Markings minedly ahead. Before its

birth-year had expired, the
N.Y. & Wash. R.P.O. (now PRR) was begun; leading post
offices were instructed to dispense with ■^s'rappings, post bills,
and letter packets, and tie letters with twine for quick R.P.O.
handling; and thirteen more of the country's thirty-seven re-
maining D.P.O.s were discontinued.

The first full year of the infant R.M.S. (1865) saw the old
N.Y. & Dunkirk (Erie) and Phila. & Pittsburgh (PRR) R.P.O.s
established in the East (now the N.Y. & Sala. and N.Y. Sc
Pitts.); but eastern postmasters, with their fat redistributing
commissions, opposed any further expansion, and no more
lines were added for a long time. But in the west the R.P.O.s
grew both in numbers and facilities; first came the Chic. &
Davenport (Rock I.), then the Chic. & Quincy (CB&:Q),
Chic. & St. Lou. (Alton), Chic. & Centralia (IC), Clinton &
Boone (C&NW) in Iowa, and the Chicago k Cairo (IC) on
the route of the controversial service mentioned.

118



THE RAILWAY MAIL COMES OF AGE 119

The earliest R.P.O.s had the crudest of equipment. News-
papers, if handled at all, were sorted into large wooden boxes
either on the floor or stacked case-like. Later some cars had
a wooden rack of boxes opening at the bottom, the contents
being gathered from below into sacks when full, with great
difficulty. Mail sacks had no label holders, but rather tiny
wooden paddles called whittlers; on these destinations were
written, then shaved off for re-use until too thin. (Clerks
unsure of routings were inclined to whittle off the ^rom line
right away!) Wooden racks to hold paper sacks were not
invented by White until 1874; the iron Harrison rack for
papers and pouches (invented by C. H. Harrison of the
R.M.S.) followed about 1879, and then the similar collapsible
steel-pipe rack now in use.

Pioneers of the scattered, radically new Service had to
contend with an unwieldly mass of distributing offices still
wrapping and post-billing ordinary letters, but were harassed
most of all by the frightful messes of loose papers, untied
letters, and heavily wrapped packets dumped onto them in
"mixed" sacks by connecting agent runs. It often took five
times as long to separate and face up the mail as it did to
sort it, and drastic corrective orders were issued to all agents,
including a simple faced-out tie-up of direct letter packages.

"Catching" of mail on the fly by non-stop trains was prac-
ticed on the N.Y. & Wash, as early as 1865, but in the absence
of cranes and catchers, most early R.P.O. trains merely slowed
up for the clerk to catch the pouch with his arm from the
station agent. This proved dangerous to both men and after
trying modified train-order sticks, crude wooden F-shaped
mail cranes were substituted. Soon afterward the present
simple steel hook and crane were adopted.

To co-ordinate the Vv'ork of post offices with the new
R.P.O.s, R.M.S. officials were early authorized to supervise
the make-up of outgoing mails in all large post offices, and
naturally many experienced clerks later became post-office
superintendents of mails. The arrangement is still in effect.

Expansion in the progressive Midwest continued, with
Armstrong and post-office men working in harmony. Before



120 MAIL BY RAIL

1866 arrived, the Wisconsin legislature was petitioning Con-
gress for R.P.O.s; and Harrison, the future rack inventor,
planned the first cars to be constructed especially for R.P.O.
service (aided by a Route Agent Johnson), for the first route
there (on the C&NW to Green Bay). On September 6, 1866,
transit distribution was restored to the historic Hannibal &
St. Joe route, which then became the Quincy & St. Joseph, a
true R.P.O. The next year saw the first "full R.P.O." cars,
forty feet long, installed on the pioneer Chic. & Clinton
(C&NW^) and on the Overland run continuing to Boone and
Council Bluffs; they were designed by Armstrong, with Cap-
tain James E. White (later General Superintendent) labeling
the letter and paper cases. "Chief head clerks," now known
as clerks-in-charge, were also first designated in 1867, and
their duties specified.

But in the East the continued antagonism snowballed into
forces that threatened extinction of the whole Service. When
Harrison Parks took over the three struggling lines there, he
found no local service being performed and almost no quali-
fied clerks; the Department was threatening to abandon the
three. Bitterest opposition was in New England, around the
just-established Boston & N.Y. (NYNH&H). The smoldering
resentment of politically powerful postmasters and news-
papers, notably in Boston, broke into raging flame in January
1874 with an attack on the whole R.M.S. system by the
Boston Morning Journal. Backed by the postmaster, it pro-
posed an immediate return to D.P.O.s and route agents, de-
cried the "extravagance" of clerks working only "half the
time," and accused the Department of holding all westbound
mails for the two daily R.P.O. trains to New York and of not
providing southward connections for these two. Captain
White of the R.M.S., in a masterful defense, published a
stinging rebuttal— publicly informing the Boston postmaster
of his duty to pouch on New York City and points beyond by
means of a dozen closed-pouch trains a day; the necessity of
needed rest periods and the studies currently arranging bet-
ter connections were noted.

At the height of the trouble the vexed postmaster had a



THE RAILWAY MAIL COMES OF AGE 121

bell installed in the office of the Division Superintendent,
R.M.S., located in his building, and thereupon would sum-
mon him as he would a messenger boy. The superintendent
calmly aware of his responsibilities and his independence of
the post office, ignored the bell; and when the enraged post-
master sent a messenger after him, he sent back the message
that the post-office head would have to call on him— "The
bell is on the wrong end of the wire." By such firm tactics,
and by steady improvements everywhere, the R.M.S. slowly
established its position of authority and respected necessity
in the East. It began to expand rapidly, until its lines con-
nected with those of the Midwest. On the N.Y. & Chic, local
runs alone, mail once requiring the exchange of forty-seven
pouches from the New York G.P.O. was now dispatched in
one pouch to the postal car.

In 1868 some sweeping, essential innovations were begun.
First there appeared schemes of distribution (sorting lists),
the first being one designed by Captain White— the Civil War
officer slated to become a prominent R.M.S. leader— as a
scheme for all lines out of Chicago. The first state scheme
(1872) was that of Wisconsin, and the first Eastern one was
for New York State; most were alphabetical "standpoint-
exception" lists (still used by Western Union) on large sheets
of paper, reading (for example, the Massachuetts scheme)
thus:

MASSACHUSETTS: -To Boston D.P.O.

Except:

Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire,"! o, ait, t? p n

and Worcester counties / ' ^

Thus were clerks gradually relieved from "doping out" routes
from maps and inquiries.

The second new reform, the facing slip with its "error-
checking" procedure, is said to date back to an inspection
trip between Mattoon and Centralia, Illinois, to check accur-



122 MAIL BY RAIL

acy of sorting on the connecting Chic. Sc Cairo (IC); the in-
vestigator discovered many errors in dispatch, resulting in
inauguration of stamped facing slips in 1868 or 1869 and the
issuance of orders to check errors thereon by 1871. Other
reports, however, state that the two lines involved were the
Lafayette-Quincy run and the Chic. R: Centralia (IC); and
still others say the clerks themselves originated the error-
checking idea informally to help each other learn best dis-
patch, or that George S. Bangs originated it. (Facing slips
were used in some post offices in 1864.)

On July 1, 1869, the Railway Mail Service was first organ-
ized in six divisions under a single general superintendent;
Armstrong, who had planned the setup, was himself appoint-
ed to the top position. All closed-pouch and route-agent runs
were placed under R.M.S. jurisdiction. Resigning after only
three years in top place, the great "Father of the R.M.S."
died just a few days later in 1873. He had just put his whole
life and heart into the great new field that was his. George
S. Bangs succeeded him, but not before Armstrong had intro-
duced the first standard mail cranes (1869) and the first
extensive night R.P.O. trains. Giving overnight delivery to
most mails within hundreds of miles, they were introduced
over the protests of the railroads; they were needed particu-
larly to transfer outbound local mails to an inbound morning
local train at outer termini for early deliveries, and for
keeping express mails in continuous movement. Armed
guards were often assigned at night.

With 1870 came the practice case and scheme examina-
tions, another invention of Captain White. Designing the
former, he had UP Master Carbuilder Stevens build the first
one in Omaha, and he commenced the examinations in Chi-
cago in 1872. He introduced a probationary period the same
year, weeding out hundreds of incompetent politically-ap-
pointed clerks. Bangs soon authorized him to order the sepa-
ration of R.P.O. -bound mails from the post offices by States,
and in New York City the "stating" of large periodicals direct
by publishers was then begun under R.M.S. supervision. It is
still done today, and sometimes symbols are supplied to en-



THE RAILWAY MAIL COMES OF AGE 123

able dispatch to routes. Most of such mailbags noAV go direct
to R.P.O.s.

Final fundamental step in R.M.S. innovations was the
Schedule of Mail Trains, another White invention, first
printed in the Chicago Postal Record, as was the pioneer
Wisconsin scheme, in the issue of March 1872. It listed only
the trains serving each junction, but it gradually evolved into
today's schedules.

The Service Rating System of merits and demerits, based
on the Brown system on the railroads (whence Brownies),
also had its first beginnings in 1872. In the same year ap-
peared a set of Instructions to R.P.C.s. Among interesting
requirements therein were that post bills were still to be
made out for unpaid letters, that direct packages were to be
faced out minus slips, and errors in direction or address
were to be corrected by clerks— all of which instructions have
now been directly reversed.

By 1873, when Bangs came into office, there were just 752
railway postal clerks in the United States. The same year,
we might note, the American Bible Society was placing Bibles
in mail cars and others on the Bait. & Cumberland R.P.O.
(WMd) and B&O lines in Maryland. Next year Bangs issued
his first R.M.S. Annual Report, later a large and important
volume, but now absorbed in the small Annual Report of the
P.M.G. By now there were eight divisions— the 8th out W^est.

To Bangs also is credited the establishment of the first
famous 'Tast Mail," on September 16, 1875. Previous to this
time there had been fast service on short and separate lines,
but their time value was lost at connecting points. Bangs
therefore included in his report a recommendation for a
through exclusive train over the various independent lines
then connecting New York and Chicago, saving twelve to
twenty-four hours in transit time. The service was organized
and arrangements made with the hearty co-operation of the
railroads involved; it was designated, as now, the N.Y. &:
Chicago R.P.O. It traversed the N. Y. Central S: Hudson
River and Lake Shore & Mich. Southern Railways.

The initial trip, made with great ceremony, was the most



124 MAIL BY RAIL

publicized event in R.M.S. history and a significant milestone
of progress in the entire Postal Service. General Superin-
tendent Bangs himself was in charge at the old Grand Central
Station, New York. Such prominent guests as the Vice-Presi-
dent, the Honorable Henry Wilson of New York, the report-
ers from all sizable Eastern newspapers, mayors, postmasters,
and top railroad officials accompanied him at the ceremonies
and on the trip. The train was composed of four postal cars
with William B. Thompson in charge, and one drawing-room
coach accommodating one hundred distinguished officials and
visitors. The "letter" cars were fifty feet long, the "paper"
cars sixty feet. All were painted white, trimmed in cream,
and ornamented with gilt; each car was named after the
governor of a state, the R.P.O. cars being designated the
Tilden, Dix, Allen, and Todd. The name of the car and the
words "United States Post Office" were included within large
gilt ovals, while "The Fast Mail" and the railroad name were
lettered on sides and ends. Painted landscape scenes and
medallions in relief of both sides of the Great Seal of the
United States (as shown on back of today's dollar bills) com-
pleted the decorations.

In the rainy dawn, mail wagons clattered from the old
downtown New York Post Office up to Grand Central with
their loads for the new train, simultaneously with others
destined for the Cortlandt Street piers and the first trip of the
Pennsylvania's own competitive Limited Mail. A picked crew
of clerks received the mail— 43 pouches of letters, 663 sacks of
ordinary papers, and bundles of newspapers numbering
50,000 pieces, a total of 33 tons. Red bags were provided for
the New York-to-Poughkeepsie mail, so the local clerks would
be sure to sort it first— only to have the dyers' bill for the
bags later disallowed by a Post Office Department clerk, un-
familiar with the exacting conditions on the trains, as a silly
extravagance! Perhaps it was; no more were dyed.

The train pulled out and thundered on its way northward.
At Albany 1 50 more bags were received from the Boston con-
nections, while local catches continued apace. Crews were
changed several times in the nine hundred-mile trip, with



THE RAILWAY MAIL COMES OF AGE 125

Bangs watching the Indiana crew while sitting on some
pouches, watch in hand. At suburban Englewood, Illinois,
a sudden lurch dazed the engineer with a blow to the head;
but still the "hogger" brought his train into Chicago one
minute early. He had made the run in twenty-six hours
(or thirty— sources differ), or about half the former time.
Then, exhausted, he fainted dead away.

The successful performance was greeted with great satis-
faction, and both England and France requested diagrams of
the cars. But next year Congress reduced all railroad mail
pay by 10 per cent, and the irate companies (who had invested
$4,000 per car in the Fast Mail) withdrew the service July 22,
1876, ten days after that act. In spite of public protests, the
Fast Mail was not restored until 1881 (or possibly 1877, one
source says), when the freshly painted train began rolling
again— in two sections. The "Fast Mail" designation was
dropped sometime after 1883, but regulation fast-mail trains
on "The Chic," such as the Century, still keep up the pace.

The Pennsy's competing Limited Mail route to Chicago
and St. Louis (N.Y. k Pitts.-Pitts. & Chic-Pitts. R: St. Lou.
R.P.O.s) began operating officially at the same time as the
more famed Central's setup; in fact, non-mail-carrying runs
began three days before (4:50 A.M., September thirteenth).
Built in record time at Altoona, the cars were hauled by
Engine 699, with Sam Knowles as conductor and Al Herbert



Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 11 of 38)