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as engineer (data which is sadly lacking for the Fast Mail
run). The Limited Mail was withdrawn and restored to-
gether with its competitor. By beating the New York Central
in speed, the Pennsy eventually secured many of the desirable
mail contracts. Its "Limited" was gradually succeeded by the
famed Broadway Limited of today.

Other "Fast Mails" followed in quick succession— on the
IC's Chic. & Cairo, the PRR's N.Y. & Wash, (about 1883), the
CM&StP's Chic. & Minn, (about 1898). But most famous of all
others was the storied Overland transcontinental line which
extended the New York & Chicago service on west to San
Francisco. The Burlington's "Fast Mail," which made its first
run on the Chic. & Council Bluffs (adjacent to Omaha) at


3 A.M., March 11, 1884, claims to have been the first link in
the chain; the train was prepared on one day's notice from
the P.M.G. after a conference. Despite a greatly speeded-up
timecard, it hit every stop on schedule on the 499-mile
route, whereupon the Department at once shortened the
schedule— and has done so a dozen times since, each increased-
speed demand being promptly met without failure. On Feb.
17, 1899, its Fast Mail (Train 15) made the run in 9 hours, 14
minutes. This line, the C. Sc N. W., and the Rock Island all
competed fiercely for the westbound mail contract, engaging
in some stirring races. Gradually the C&rNW's Chic, k Omaha
secured a plurality of the total R.P.O. service and is today
usually considered the Midwest's transcontinental link; this
route was a leader in the cutting of running time through
the years.

Following consultations, Captain White then succeeded in
contracting with the Union Pacific at Omaha for a connecting
Fast Mail on their Omaha k Ogden route and, at a second
conference with South Pacific and Central Pacific heads in
San Francisco, secured promise of their own fastest trains to
carry on the Fast Mail from Ogden to the coast on the Ogden
k San Fran. R.P.O.

The first transcontinental Fast Mail from Omaha to the
Pacific pulled out on November 15, 1889, at 7 P.M., forty-five
minutes late— with Captain White, high postal and railroad
officials, and newspaper correspondents from New York to
San Francisco on board as guests. Thirteen tons of mail were
taken on, mostly from the East via the N.Y. & Chic— Chic. &:
Counc. Bluffs Fast Mail connection. The first lap, over the
slowly ascending grades, prairies, and mountains to Cheyenne,
Wyoming, was done in record time, the forty-five minutes
being made up easily in these five hundred miles. Changing
crews, the train pulled thirty miles farther to Sherman, the
Continental Divide; then down through Laramie to Green
River, Wyoming. This was the junction for the connecting
fast mail to the Northwest (the UP's Green River k Portland),
and twenty-three minutes were lost here— the car of officials
and guests had been accidentally switched to the wrong con-


sist. The Fast Mail had to back up to reach it, and fifteen
more minutes were lost. With powerful head wind and a
grade of 211 feet per mile to overcome, it seemed the time
could never be made up by Ogden.

But they reckoned without "Wild Bill" Downing, a famous,
reckless engineer who came on at Evanston, Wyoming. Sub-
stituting a more po^verful engine, he gave them such a hair-
raising ride through the mountains and down Echo and
Weber canyons as had never been dreamed of; with savage
energy he sent the train rocking wildly as sparks and ballast
flew from under the wheels. "Three miles in two minutes!"
gasped Captain White at Devils Gate; and when their car
careened until one set of wheels was off the rails, even
General Manager Dickenson tried to have the train stopped.
But the time was made up by Ogden; a speed record deemed
"impossible" had been made through the daring of Railway
Mail and Union Pacific personnel. The U.P. had been inter-
ested in good R.P.O. service since its construction days,
when even the track-laying train had its "Union Pacific

From Ogden the epoch-making train proceeded as the
Os:den & San Francisco, the famous "Overland" route. Hold-
ing to its schedule, the Fast Mail continued through the
ru^ijed terrain while clerks distributed both California and
San Francisco City mail; with mails ready for dispatch, it
pulled into Oakland Pier depot right on the dot. Total tran-
sit time from New York to San Francisco was 108 hours, 45
minutes— mighty good time in those days.

Steady improvements in the Fast Mails continued. The
CB&Q's Chic. & C. Bluffs Fast Mail even elicited a dramatic
description of its passage from the great evangelist Bily Sun-
day, who had considerable sentiment for it; it now carried six
cars (150 tons) of mail.

General Superintendent Bangs was succeeded in 1875 by
Theordore N. Vail, the first railway postal clerk to be pro-
moted on merit to the top R.M.S. position (see Chapter 16).
Then came General Superintendent William B. Thompson
in 1878, under whom the Railway Mail Service established


its Daily Bulletin— which evolved into the familiar Postal
Bulletin of today-on March 4, 1880. On July 1, 1882, all
remaining route agents and "head clerks" were officially re-
assigned under the universal title "railway postal clerks," and
remaining agent runs became "R.P.O.s."

On December 31, 1888, under another general superin-
tendent (Nash), President Cleveland ordered the entire
R.M.S. placed under the federal Civil Service. That meant
that all appointments and promotions after May first were to
be on merit alone— eliminating the political influences caus-
ing discharge of hundreds of losing-party clerks at every new
administration change, which had governed even such things
as choice of runs and had permitted many incompetent

The Gay Nineties, a typical period in the younger days of
the R.M.S., were launched by the appointment of none other
than Captain White as general superintendent, October 4,
1890, succeeding J. Lowrie Bell and others. Life on the mail
trains in this era was colorful and interesting, but certainly
no picnic. Some of the conditions of the period, or of opera-
tions shortly before or afterward, are reflected in a few de-
scriptions such as this one by Votaw:

"... A dilapidated car, vintage of 1860, which had not felt
a paint brush for years . . . track visible through the broken
floor . . . dingy from years of smoke from a single oil lamp
which dripped gently on the floor. Old boxes like hens' nests
served as a paper case; ... a rusty barrel stove on one side."

Later the potbellied stove was often replaced by a cranky
Baker (hot-water) heater; then came the first engine-heated
steampipes (still used), but with no steam during advance
hours. Men not near the little auxiliary stove froze, and had
to blow the steampipes twice an hour during the trip. Sack
carpets and heavy overshoes were needed to prevent freezing,
for temperatures went below zero despite the stove. When
one antiquated heater, unused for twenty-seven years, was lit
in a recent car shortage it still "made smoked hams of the

The dirty, leaky coal-oil lamps were often drained to fill


those in "more important" cars, and candles substituted.
Acetylene and Pintsch-gas lights— which still had to be lit
from stepladders in inky darkness, and which were tapped for
gas when a connecting line ran out, and candles furnished
again— some from Germany, gradually appeared. At least
clerks no longer wore sacks to ward off dripping oil!

Cars themselves were, of flimsy wood construction, often
rebuilt from other coaches scrapped as too old; whole chunks
of rotten wood were pulled from some cars. One crew could
never report their car's length as required, because it was
inches longer going uphill than when level. Some compart-
ments for clerks were as tiny as 3 x 7 feet, while clerks on
the Lawrenceville & Carbondale (Lawr&W) in Illinois held
forth in the caboose. Windows were far dirtier than at pres-
ent—even "slimy." Western trains operated over light rails
on loose-laid ties in black muck, hauled by old-style light-
weight Baldwin or Rogers engines; one clerk was thrown in
the same ditch three times.

As for equipment, clumsy tie-on tags had now replaced the
whittlers on mailbags; letter pouches were mostly leather ones
with awkward multistaple fastenings— heavy, strapped hull-
heads and light, strapless suckermouths. Some cars even had
a "metallic forest" of wire ropes and rods to hold mailbags
suspended open, instead of the usual racks.

Salaries and working conditions would have seemed in-
credible today. General Superintendent White drew less, in
dollars, than the average clerk at present. Remembering that
money had a much higher purchasing value then, we note
that pay for the starting grade (Class I) was usually $800—
sometimes as low as $610— a year. New subs were paid at this
rate only for time worked, direct by the regular clerk for
whom they ran, and often several days late; they received
about $2.18 for each "day" worked, which might be a trip of
more than twenty-four hours.

There was no travel allowance, no overtime pay, no sick
or annual leave, no study-allowance time. Nevertheless the
new clerk was given a handsomely embellished certificate of
appointment, printed in crimson or purple from engraved


script type! In contrast, old clerks who had slowed down were
often summarily dismissed without pension— there was no
retirement pay.

Clerks had to sign an arrival-and-departure book before
and after each trip and carry a photographic pass bearing
their picture instead of the signed travel commission of today.
Vivid memories of his old photo commission are recalled by
Earl Newton, who growls in contempt at the old photo the
office had used; but—

Tildy Ann looked at the picture, then put

Her arms round my neck, and she said;
"Don't you know, John, that picture looks just as you did

The summer before we were wed?
I remember you sent me a photo like that;

I'm sure you don't wholly forget—
It looked pretty comely to both of us then.

It looks pretty good to me yet . . ."

There were no terminals, P.T.S., for the lines to dump
"stuck" mails into; clerks not only had to sort all circulars,
magazines, and parcels received into the train (as well as
letters), but had to remain in the car at the terminus to finish
sorting any undistributed mails— without pay. Even when
terminals first appeared, road clerks were often forced to
work long hours therein after completing a lengthy run of
their own; if the train was late, they sometimes had to omit
all sleep, do their stint of terminal duty, and report for the
return journey with no rest whatever. They were also called
into post offices to relieve mail congestion, especially at the
turn of the century. Endless stacks of "blue-tag" paper mail
was sorted, for example, both on the Pitts. & St. Lou. Limited
Mail (PRR) itself— where clerks worked clear through be-
tween terminals after much advance work at Pittsburgh— and
in the St. Louis depot for additional hours after arrival. Still
longer continuous runs existed in the Far West.

The heavy mails brought many complaints, not all of
which were justified. White once learned of one clerk who
said he was swamped with far more mail on his run on the


Omaha & Ogden (UP) than could possibly be distributed be-
fore reaching Ogden. White accompanied him on the next
trip, asking only that the clerk set up and tie out for his
chief; and White himself "sorted out" the whole pile by
North Platte, Nebraska, only one quarter of the way out of
Omaha. The clerk never complained again.

However, White was keenly aware of the genuine hard-
ships which were nevertheless suffered by clerks throughout
the Service, and he favored and predicted retirement annui-
ties, increased salaries, travel allowances, longer layoffs, and
high-speed trains many years before they came about. There
were pettv restrictions, too: a rule was issued requiring clerks
to turn each bag inside out after emptying, to be sure no mail
was left therein. Since this would consume hours of valuable
time, clerks commenced iisins; the bags inside out too— and
the order was soon rescinded. There was an economy drive
on the use of twine, requiring receipts for each ball by each
clerk too; cut twine was ordered knotted together and re-used.
Clerks on the old Detroit R: Albany (not a Michigan-to-New
York State run, but an SP branch in Oregon) dispatched a
two-foot-ball of saved twine to the division superintendent,
labeled 'Tirst Annual Ball for Benefit of Baled-Hay Widows
and Unidentified Orphans," which was displayed at head-
quarters and the clerks highlv commended.

Registered mail was another headache; it was dispatched
in regularly scheduled striped pouches (stripes) and inner
sacks, checked like other pouches; there were no facilities for
quantitv billing to terminal offices or unauthorized destina-
tions. John Fisher tells of the registered packages of gold
and -^vhat not that poured east from California, eight hun-
dred per trip, requiring four clerks to write them on the
Albuq. Sc El Paso (Santa Fe) alone; one clerk went through
to Kansas City to catch up. Other registered parcels, several
hundreds, were found buried under storage mail.

The bearded, adventurous clerks of that day included some
picturesque characters— "Cheyenne Pete" of the Ogden 8:
S. F. (SP), a legendary superman famed in verse, and many
others. Clerks wore an indigo-dyed uniform with double-


breasted coat and vest, and regulation silk-corded navy cap.
For rough work, indigo rolled-collar flannel shirts and tent-
duck overalls with "stomach protectors." When uniforms
disappeared, a standard cap was prescribed with the letters
"R.M.S.," richly gold-braided. But Northern clerks com-
plained of freezing ears, and portly ones of "unbecomingness"
to their broad, side-whiskered faces; so it too, gave way to the
official badge of today.

Coffee and lunches were prepared under difficulties, but
often with a humorous or nostalgic note. The train box con-
tained a frying pan and other cooking ware as well as a coffee
pot, and old-time hot meals were cooked on the flat-topped
stove— steaks, pork chops, ham and eggs, and fried potatoes,
instead of today's cold sandwiches or "insipid canned goods
warmed on the steam pot." Some railways allowed clerks to
wash up, change, and eat in the diner at half price, or even
had trays brought to the car door at bargain fees. Western
ranch stops provided fresh eggs and fruit at country prices;
and on leisurely branch lines the train would stop while the
whole engine and mail crew shot ducks, geese, or pheasant
for a game dinner to follow at home.

But crews without stove heat did cooking with great diffi-
culty, perhaps over kerosene-soaked twine balls. One type of
car had gas lights so arranged that coffee could be heated
thereon, but globes broke if any coffee boiled over. One
N.Y. & Chic. (NYCent) clerk heated his coffee in this manner
just after a rule against the practice had been issued, and
just as he was serving coffee at Albany he was greeted by the
chief clerk entering the car.

"Well, Louis, how did you get your coffee heated so
nicely?" he asked.

"Oh, I got off at Schenectady and tied the pot to the brake
beam where it would rub the wheels a little ... it warmed
it just right," Louis assured him. The official, who of course
knew better, just grinned and walked away.

Trunk-line runs were so long and exhausting then that a
few hours' sleep had to be allowed en route. Most clerks
carried a "bed sack"— a worn-out sack stuffed with discarded


blankets, an old pillow, and work clothes, and handled at
terminals by the grip man. Some cars had collapsible bunks
which lay on racks or stall cleats and folded up; others used
laced-paper-sack hammocks. Some long runs were three and
four full days one way, and sleeping regulations required
that any of the men could sleep one at a time if the mail
was in good shape. Exhausted clerks sometimes slept more
time than allotted, and one was removed from the Service
for "sleeping on duty and giving as reason for failure to
make catch, 'Did not hear the whistle.' " On shorter lines,
rough cots were provided on top floors of large post-office
buildings at termini of runs.

A final sidelight of the period was the famed "car permit,"
issued theoretically as an admit card to various postal cars
and stamped in bright red "Not good for transportation."
Actually they were furnished to clerks as passes for rides over
lines other than their own, even by officials of the Service,
and all clerks-in-charge were expected to honor them for pas-
sage in spite of regulations. As related by C. E. Parsons, they
were used for many years until 1893, when they were quickly
withdrawn after clerks from all over the nation were noticed
in Washington, D. C, attending the presidential inaugura-
tion on their permits. Despite howls of protest, no such
passes were ever restored.

Most trainmen also honored the permits, but some ob-
served the regulations to the letter. One clerk riding on a
permit in a B&O storage car next to the engine was killed
in a wreck, and his family won an expensive suit against the
road. Provoked B&O officials condemned the permits, saying
the clerk should have been given a pass to ride the coaches,
where no one had been hurt. Another permit-riding clerk
was permanently "blackballed" from riding any part of the
Missouri Pacific when he talked back to a conductor question-
ing him as he reclined in a chair in the mail-car doorway.
On being requested to pay fare as a result, he angrily re-
marked, "If I do pay, I doubt if the Company will get it."
Rench himself, riding by permit over the old St. Louis, La. &
K.City (C&A), found himself in the car with a nervous new


clerk instead of the one he knew— and to keep him from
going stuck, Rench had to help him all night without pay,
on a detour!

There are many other vivid incidents of the old days.
When no one on Albuq. & L.A. (Santa Fe) Train 3 had a
match to light the Pintsch-gas lamps one evening, one clerk
merely pulled the cord and borrowed one from the wrathful
conductor. Then there was that notorious huge sack of mail
labeled "Snowsheds D&D" (i.e., mail for "delivery and distri-
bution") which a storage-car helper brought back to the old
Ogden (Utah) Temporary Terminal, which had just made it
up for dispatch, asking what the clerks wanted done with it-
there was no such place as Snowsheds. The exhausted Ogden
helpers, all detailed there twelve hours a day at $75 a month
because of washouts on their line, all denied having made
up the sack despite the label's evidence. The reason ^vas quite
evident when the sack Avas opened— it was crammed ^vith tiny
salve cans, the size of quarters, addressed practically every-
where! The force, composed, by the way, "mostly of future
R.M.S. officials," never distributed that noxious sack; it was
allegedly relabeled once more to some imsuspecting line or
post office in California.

The postmaster at Letts, Iowa, once reported a crew on the
old Davenport R: Atchison (Rock I.?— traversing his town) for
throwing mail off the train into piles of cow manure. It had
not been done intentionally thus far, but the provoked clerks
now began to improve their marksmanship until they became
pretty expert, says Rench. Appearance of a paper addressed
to Letts on connecting lines from then on was sure to elicit
bantering remarks, not all printable. When "Old Nathan,"
a clerk of that era, was discovered embroiled in a raging
scuffle, yelling for help, in the end of the car where he was
supposed to be sleeping one night, would-be rescuers crept
in with drawn guns. They discovered, says Earl Newton in
verse form, that he had a mouse in his pajamas!

A booklet of 1902 by Superintendent V. J. Bradley (2nd
Division) well reveals the scope of the Service at the time.
There were then 179,902 miles of R.P.O. routes and 8,794


clerks, handling 272,714,017 ton-miles of mail annually; there
were eleven divisions. Despite the 76,000 post offices then
existing, efficient R.M.S. distribution had enabled the great
New York G.P.O. to cut its outgoing mail separations to less
than 1,300 and the Philadelphia post office's to only 1,000.
Bradley, admitting some clerks still got only $800, also
pointed out how little of their layoff was actual free time.
Clerks were averaging 98.74 per cent in exams, as against
only 90.24 in 1890, and sorted thirteen billion pieces of mail
a year. At about this time modern pouch records had just

In the 1880s (and up to 1916) mail pay to the railroads was
based on a quadrennial weighing of all mails during a fixed
period of some 105 days; the country was divided into four
sections, and one section was covered each period, with special
clerks assisting. There were always weighings going on.

Clerks of the era were particularly loyal to Postmaster
General John Wanamaker, the great merchant-philanthro-
pist, who took much interest in the R.M.S. (see Chapter 10 for
his gold-medal awards). By 1902 they were running on 1,278
steam, 23 trolley, and 49 boat-line R.P.O.s. By 1907 there
were 14,000 clerks, and their accuracy in distribution was up
to only one error in every 11,822 pieces handled (it was one
in 2,824 in 1890).

The railways continued to build up right and left, and the
R.P.O. system was overexpanded as railway post offices were
hastily installed on practically every piece of trackage longer
than a spur. There was even one on the private track of the
Nevada Consolidated Copper Company— the old Cobre &:
Ely (NevNthn), serving Kimberly and other famous towns
until scrapped (1941).

An ill-dated experiment in shipping bulk mail to various
distributing points in freight cars was commenced under the
Hitchcock economy regime in 1909, causing great delay to
thousands of magazines and catalogs and great confusion
among clerks at distributing points, especially concerning
weighings. (It was this mail which required the blue tags
mentioned earlier, attached in a futile effort to keep it


Straight.) Protests from publishers finally secured a curtail-
ment of the practice in 1912. By 1915 the force totaled over
20,000 clerks; they were distributing nearly fourteen billion
pieces of mail annually, 99.98 per cent correct, in 914 full and
3,040 apartment cars, and mail-carrying trackage had reached
the staggering total of 216,000 miles.

Note: The period covered by this chapter would chrono-
logically include the Spanish-American War and other special
events (the Chicago fire, the "Gold Trains," etcetera) in-
volving the R.M.S., but these are covered more appropriately
in Chapter 11. Similarly, it would normally include the
founding of the association which is now the N.P.T.A. (also
the M.B.A.), but this will be better discussed in the follow-
ing chapter, along with the significant events between 1910
and 1940, which all seem inextricably linked with the railway
mail labor movement. Most new developments since 1940 are
in Chapter 16.

Chapter 9


There's a great jubilation about us,

And, hailing from far and from near.
From the shadowy vales to the hilltops.

The sounds of rejoicing we hear;
The goddess of fortune is smiling.

Prosperity's coming our way—
They've made us a travel allowance

Of six shining coppers a day! . . .

— Earl L. Newton

Thrilling, sometimes horrifying, al-
most incredible, is the saga of the railway
mail clerk's successful fight for safer and
better working conditions, for a closer
approach to fair salaries, for the right to
petition Congress, and for true labor
unionism in its finest existing form.
Until today the story never could be
fully told; but now that tempers have cooled and many key
figures in the bitter struggle have passed from the scene, many
a cherished secret has been revealed to the researcher for the
first time. One salient fact stands out— that it was America's
railway mail clerks who initiated and spearheaded the suc-
cessful restoration of basic constitutional rights to all govern-

Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 12 of 38)