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

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the highest official of the service.

Occasionally, however, a somewhat unlettered youth who
nevertheless makes excellent examination grades is appoint-
ed. Clark Carr tells how enraged one Civil Service commis-
sioner was when former General Superintendent Bangs of
the old "R.M.S." showed him an atrociously ungrammatical
and misspelled letter received from such a clerk— until Bangs
revealed that that clerk was the best in the United States at
that time, making faster time, fewer errors, and better test
grades than any other employee!

To let off steam amid their trying working conditions, most
clerks indulge in a good bit of healthy "griping" against "the
office" and against their own fraternal union, the National
Postal Transport Association (RMA); actually, their loyalty
to both ranks close to perfect. A second "escape" is provided
by their universal sense of humor.

The typical clerk is a clean-cut, healthy chap with few dis-
tinguishing features when in street clothes, unless he is going
to or from his train, carrying his "little grip" and heavy key
chain. But in his head he has retained the exact names and
routes of from three thousand to ten thousand different post
offices, and, often, the exact train connections for most of
them. Some P.T.S. men have a keen natural interest in the
geographical routing of addresses and rather enjoy their stud-
ies and duties, and some have yielded to a seldom-admitted
lure for serving on speeding trains. But our typical railway
mail clerk just regards it all as part of a grind— a job he carries


on faithfully, unknown and unsung. What matters it that in
his most important periodic "exams," passing is 97 per cent,
and in all others, 85 per cent— far higher than the best uni-
versity requirements!

Postal transportation clerks and their predecessors (route
agents) have been publicly cited for their honesty and loyalty
for over one hundred years. With no officials to observe them
at work, clerks handle billions of dollars on their honor-
ranging from an occasional unwrapped silver coin or bank
note labeled to destination with stamp affixed (or even a letter
with a nickel sewed on for postage) to whole cases and bags of
currency, bonds, or coin which they must keep protected at
gun point. All are promptly delivered in safety, while the
smallest loose coin or the largest bill is scrupulously turned
in. Statistically, the P.T.S. is 99.87 per cent honest!

Many a loyal clerk thinks nothing of paying out of his
pocket for costly geographical lists, keved city-distribution
case labels, special stationery, knives and thumbstalls, and
other supplies, none of which is required equipment for
doing his job according to minimum standards. He purchases
them voluntarily— solely in order to sort mail more quickly
and accurately. Even when ill he sometimes makes his run,
if no substitutes are available, rather than default the job.
But there are more dramatic examples of loyalty too. . . .

Before Beardstown, Illinois, built its sea wall, the Illinois
River often flooded the entire vicinity of the Burlington sta-
tion. One night as Rock Island k St. Louis (CBR:Q) R.P.O.
Train 51 was ready to leave over the flooded track, a man in
hip boots came rushing up to the door with a revolver and a
bag of mail. It seems that a long stretch of track over which
a connecting train was due to come in had completely washed
out, and this man— Clerk R. E. Glenn, off duty— had hired a
rowboat and brought the mail over miles of rough Avater in
the dark to make a last-minute connection, preventing the
delay of thousands of letters. Oddlv enough, the risky deed
was not officially approved at the time.

Similar floods often maroon R.P.O. trains in isolated places
or force them to detour many miles, thus requiring clerks to


work sometimes twenty or thirty hours without a break. In
some cases the mail is soon worked up and the weary men
can doze or rest during tlie extra time; but, like as not, de-
layed or unexpected extra mail connections will be received
in the train from all directions. Schedules and routings for
best dispatch change sharply with the unexpected lapse of
time, adding to the complication and often requiring rework-
ing of mail. Lunches are fast exhausted, and any bits of eat-
ables cherished by the crew members begin skyrocketing in
value— at least so the stories have it— as the hungry men bar-
gain for them. (Actually, clerks are usually generous sharers;
a new "sub" without lunch is often quickly provided for.)

Such major emergencies as train robberies and serious
wrecks are pretty rare in these days of safety devices, eagle-
eyed inspectors, and armed clerks. Rut when they do occur,
today's "mail-key railroaders" still live up to their proverbial
devotion, alertness, and courage. They yet have a share in all
the tasks and traditions, the risks and romance, that float
upon the smoky breath of the "high iron." (See Chap. 11.)

There ^vere, for example. Clerks Karl Boothman and Guy
O'Hearn, who beat off desperate bandits (in open gunplay)
who had attacked Chic. R: Carbondale (IC) Train .81 at
Onarga, Illinois, in 1939; badly wounded, they saved a 556,000
pavroll, shot a bandit to enable his capture, later received
official commendations and $1,000 each from the insurance
company. Years before. Clerk Alvin S. Page planned a suc-
cessful trap for the desperadoes of "Indian Charlie," whom
he'd heard were to hold up his Texas R.P.O. train and seize
$300,000; Page risked his life defending the mails as G-men
closed in, and later refused any of a $5,000 reward offered
him by Postmaster General Hayes.

Fate struck twice in quite a different way, recently, to call
forth two magnificent examples of quick thinking courage
on the one-man "Harry R: Frank" R.P.O. — a P.R.R. run
from Harrington, Delaware, to Franklin City, Virginia,
just discontinued. Clerk C. E. Adkins, incapacitated bv a
sudden stroke when on duty southboimd. refused medical
aid until the conductor could secure a replacement for him,


meanwhile trying to work his mail left-handed on his hands
and knees clear to Franklin City and back to Snow Hill,
Maryland. There he was relieved by an off-duty clerk, called
through the quick co-operation of Mrs. Adkins. Shortly after-
wards (March 1946) Clerk C. R. Thorsten saved the lives of
seven passengers on the same train at the same spot (Snow
Hill) when a gasoline truck hit the mail train— creating a
blazing inferno from which he barely escaped alive!

As recently as March 20, 1950, a clerk paid the supreme
sacrifice through a train accident— Ira J. Donald of Terre
Haute, Indiana, fatally injured making a dangerous "catch"
February 1 at Caledonia, Ohio, on the Cleveland &: St. Louis
(Big Four); and three years before, six clerks were killed in
a terrible Pennsy tragedy. But such mass fatalities are now
extremely rare; it had been thirty-seven years since a worse
tragedy had occurred— the snow avalanche which crashed into
Spokane 8; Seat., now Williston & Seattle (ON) Trains 27
and 25, February 22, 1910, at Wellington, Washington,
killing 101 riders and 8 clerks (including Clerk-in-Charge
J. D. Fox), when the snowbound trains plunged three hundred
feet into a canyon. (Just three years before, a train of the
same R.P.O. had been marooned very close by in a snowshed
for ten days, with no harm done.*) In most recent years only
one or two clerks have been killed.

What is a wreck usually like? Ask retired clerk Theodore
Wheelock, whose mail car on the Tucumcari Sc El Paso
(SP's Golden State Limited) plowed into the far bank of
Brazorita Canyon in New Mexico as the rest of the train
plunged through a trestle. The only head-end survivor, he
dug out and waded through water up to his chin, with a
broken shoulder, until he secured help for the trapped pas-
sengers from a ranch house, and protection for his mails. Or
ask Dan Moschenross of the Toledo & St. Louis (Wabash),
who recalls ^^•ith grim humor:

" A wreck is usually caused by one train trying to meet or

^Railroad Magazine, March 1940— "10 Days in a Snowshed," by Clerk Fred


pass another on the same track. It has never been done suc-
cessfully . . . but the railroads keep right on trying. Some-
times a train will get ofT the track and run along on the
ground. 1 hat has never worked very well either . . .

"Only two people ever get to a wreck ahead of the mail
clerks: . . . the engineer and fireman. Next comes the bag-
gageman, then the passengers— and then the ambulance

"When you are in a mail car and suddenly see all the
letters flying around like pigeons, and there are ties and
broken rails going past the windows, you can be sure there's
going to be a wreck on your line. And, that you will be in it."

In one such wreck, nine pouches of loose letters Avere gath-
ered up from the resulting jumble of mail, equipment, and
broken fixtures. And while the engineer and fireman do
"get to a wreck" first, they can often see danger in time to
jump; but the clerks have no way of knowing what lies ahead.

There are other evidences of the typical clerk's innate
loyalty, less spectacular, but just as remarkable. On a simple
letter case for a distant state where he is required only to pick
out letters for the largest towns, he often voluntarily learns
the proper R.P.O. routing tor its many offices and rearranges
his case accordingly. Transferred to a new, unfamiliar assign-
ment, he pitches in, with the aid of a standpoint list perhaps,
to "work" the new State with amazing accuracy until he
qualifies on its examination; many a clerk has become expert
on an assignment by "picking it up" without ever taking a
test on it. A good clerk watches those about him, and hastens
to render assistance where needed without being told. And
instead of hoping for the train to speed up, so he can get off
duty early, he usually breathes a petition for a few slow-downs
so he can complete distribution in A-1 style.

What character sketches could be drawn of many a loyal,
respected veteran of the mail car! Who could ever forget
popular "Cappie," for example— a pleasant, tall, curly-headed
clerk on an Eastern line— who for years wore t^vo guns on
duty (P.T.S. revoher and a big "horse pistol") and always a
brace of pencils as wide as his broad smile, and who eats huge


DagAvood sandwiches? Or a certain efficient clerk-in-chargc
who demands that all "toe the mark" in no faint tones, but
who goes hunting and treats his crew— down to the newest
sub— to roast venison? More power to them.

And speaking of sandwiches and game, our mail-train men
are champion eaters indeed. Many take three or four big
sandwiches or a whole pie for lunch, while others, who eat
lightly on duty, may be true trenchermen at other times, espe-
cially at the popular banquets and celebrations staged bv the
N.P.T.A. With pheasant and deer hunting rated as the clerks'
top field sports, at least one branch holds an annual pheasant
feed famed for its food consumption; perhaps it was here that
a clerk named "Paradise" was reported in the old R.P.O. to
have eaten seven helpings of barbecue and seven ears of corn I
Despite claims of one official to the contrary, there are
quite a few fat fellows in the Service, as one would expect
after hearing of such astoimding gustatory records. We read
of colossal "eating contests," a clerk Avhose byword was "Don't
throw anything out!" and embarassing incidents of clerks
missing their trains by lingering too long at a way station
beanery (one of them had to catch it at the next station,
hiring a taxi!).

Few champions have arisen to give railway mail clerks a
bit of deserved recognition, as did one New England congress-
man who was invited to watch a tvpical clerk at work. He ex-
claimed, "You fellows earn your salary by your physical labor
alone!" then, on learning of the stringent study requirements,
"You earn your pay through your mental work alone!" More-
over, big mail-order firms and magazines like Time and Life
buy full-page advertising space in the Postal Transport
Joiirnal to express gratitude for the excellent service rendered
by postal transportation clerks. "We express our appreciation
of the splendid co-operation which makes this service possi-
ble," advertised the Reader's Digest one Christmas.

In Union, South Carolina, a businessman does his part in
remedying this lack of recognition— taken for granted by the
average clerk— by sending a Christmas message to all clerks
through the medium of those running through his town on


the Aslie. 8: Columbia (Sou). Published afterwards in the
clerks' Journal, a typical recent message of Mr. Nicholson's,
sent despite illness, read thus:

Happy Christmas greetings to you, my friends of the
Railway Mail Service: To your steadfast devotion to
duty, regardless of physical feelings and exhaustion; to
your quickness of thought and hand . . . which brings
pleasure . . . help . . . and hope with the Christmas greet-
ings and packages, I pay highest tribute. Without your
untiring efforts . . . the world, in a sense, would stand still.

Thank you . . . for what you have done for me the
past twelve months, and many years; . . . and I add a
most fervent God bless you, this . . . season, and every day.

Your friend,
Allan Nicholson

Similarly, clerks on San Fran. Sc Barstow (Santa Fe) Train
23 were pleased to receive the following card one day in
April 1947:

... I want to pat you guys on the back. That niece of
ours, Dolores, received letter April 3, mailed April 2 . . .
addressed "Hinkl, Calif." You fellows are artists. I've
read some bad ones, being a telegrapher, but this one got

L. B. Parker, Hinkley, California

And Uncle Sam's engravers once paid tribute to the R.P.O.
clerk by picturing a train and mail crane on the old five-cent
red parcel-post stamp, as well as a clerk on duty, shown on
another stamp of this long-forgotten series.

Such men are the men— known officially as "railway postal
clerks" before 1950— who speed your mail and mine home in
doid)Ie-quick time. Small wonder it is said that "It requires
as much mental, and more physical, labor to become a first-
class postal clerk than it does to become proficient in any
other . . . profession." They almost never know regular day-
light hours; holidays often mean just another workday; they
are always subject to emergency call.

Yet at Chicago, nerve center of our mail-train operations,
these postal experts connect 95 per cent of all transit mails.


from individual letters to whole through storage cars (super-
vised by P.T.S. transfer clerks), direct to the proper outgoing
train without involving the post office there. And so speeds
onward the vital correspondence of a great nation, come dark-
ness, deluge, or disaster.

Chafitr 2


That Texas case is all gummed up, and so is the Rackensac;
The Daily Sun put out a ton ot single wraps, by heck—
If we can't get through with that "Old Missoo"^ the
Chief will tramp my neck. . . .

—Robert L. Simpson

On the train platform of a great East-
ern railway terminal a group of neatly
dressed men are carrying bags and appar-
ently waiting for a train like any other
bunch of travelers. But what a rail jour-
ney these men are destined to make— in
the R. P. O. car of a great express train,
manning a strenuous trunk-line mail run
of hundreds of miles! And they well earn their hardly lucra-
tive pay— it's really a "run for their money."

From all directions and distances they have come— some on
foot, from lodgings hard by the station; some by trolley, bus,
or auto from city and suburbs; some of them on commuters'
trains, and particularly on incoming trains of their own line.
From town or farm residences all along this route clerks can
deadhead to work free on their travel commissions, some
from points over one hundred miles away. (These passes are
restricted to business travel on this one line.) Other clerks
in the group will hail from the line's other end, or from
far-distant midway points— the latter circumstances often re-
stricting home life to layoffs.

'Missouri letters.



Because they must prepare their cars and sort the mails
already accumulated locally, clerks put in several hours'
advance work while their car is still in the station. A different
(but fixed) reporting time is set by the District Superintend-
ent for each run out of that station; it may be morning,
evening, or night. If it is a heavy run, there may be two or
three full R.P.O. cars with a storage car between them and
usually others attached. (There are only 606 of these full
R.P.O. cars— but nearly 2,600 cars with R.P.O. apartments.)

Sooner or later a puffing switch engine backs the R.P.O.
unit into the particular track where the crew awaits it. If
it is late, there may be a bull session until it comes, and at no
loss of pay— but the clerks may have to work twice as hard
later to catch up. They clamber into the car over the short
door ladders, and one clerk quickly turns on the lights. In
some cars he must fish around in a dark fuse box to do it, and
let's hope he can distinguish between the switch handle and
the shiny copper bars adjacent!

At about the same time arrives the grip man, who is not a
cable-car motorman, but a baggage porter or elevator man
hired by the clerks to bring down their "big grips" of heavier
supplies to the train, at five cents per grip each way. It saves
wearily lugging these via stairs, ramps, or elevators from a
distant grip room in the station or post office.

Inside, each man throws both handbag and grip on the
case ledge and flings them open. Out of the bag comes a
wicked-looking revolver and holster, a lunch, schemes of dis-
tribution (showing the mail route for each office in a given
state), mail train schedules, various personal belongings,
stamped slips and labels or slides (furnished by the Depart-
ment, printed for that train) used for identifying packages and
bags of outgoing mail, and perhaps his clerk's name dater
with pad and rubber type to fit. pencils, and so forth. Pouch
and sack labels, cut or torn from ribbons or strips of five labels
each, look like this:



(Actual size, on
buff cardboard "slides")

Pennsylvania Newspapers
Fr N Y Geneva & Buff Tr 7

His slips are printed on paper like newsprint, like this
(dis means "mails distributed from"):


Size 3 14" X 4"


Maryland A to D
Fr Buff & Wash Tr


Tr 554 - Jun 30, 1950


The big grip is usually a large, sturdy metal or vulcanized-
fiber suitcase (leather and its substitutes seldom stand the
gaff). It contains a weird assortment of extra schemes (book-
lets about 41/^ X 81/2 inches), labels, blank slips, official forms,
a "Black Book" of Postal Laws and Regulations, work clothes,
soap and towels, coffee cup, headers (cardboard letter-case
labels), knife, registry supplies, and so on.

Instantly the mail slingers disrobe and don work clothes
and shoes, guns, badges, and small caps in a quite literal
"overall transformation"— although many prefer denims or
aprons to overalls. Some gay whimsies are tossed about as
multicolored BVD's are momentarily exposed; then guns are


loaded and all hands proceed to han^ pouches and sacks in
the racks after unfolding them from the wall. Space is limited
in most R.P.O.s; eight to ten pouches may be squeezed into
each rack row (normally divided for five), although seven arc
usually hung. Extra pouches or sacks may be hung in aisles
and under tables until even the thinnest clerk can barely
crawl "down the alley," and dragging a big sack or shin-peeler
down the aisle becomes a nightmare of barked ankles and
frayed nerves. Still more mail bags may be crammed in little
"pony" racks called crabs or jacks.

Letter clerks hasten to their cases to insert their headers
(or face up the proper case label on the revolving stick in
each hole). Potich clerks place their labels in neat visible
holders fastened inside each pouch's back edge, while "paper
men" place most of theirs in special holders on the rack
frame— unless a "blind-case expert," who places all labels in
the hidden sack holders instead, is at the rack, to the exaspera-
tion of any perplexed assistant assigned to help him!

Pigeonholes, pouches, and sacks are seemingly arranged in
a confused helter-skelter order, which is almost never alpha-
betical; but there is method in this madness— the heaviest
separations are closest at hand (see Technical Note 1). There
is at least one letter case for each state distributed on the
train, and headers show much colorful variation— from those
neatly printed at clerk's expense to hand-lettered Gothic, and
from penciled scrawls to colored cutout letters and advertise-
ment headings. Oddly enough, the top pigeonhole in each
row will not hold a header, and the one below it must do
double duty, divided into two parts— although most cars have
many a title scribbled on walls above the top holes by less
painstaking clerks! All other headers are placed over the
box designated, as new substitutes have discovered to their
chagrin after working considerable mail according to the
headers beloiu— much to the rage of the case's owner. Skip-
ping each header designating a single post office (called a
direct), the letter clerk inserts his stamped slips within the
remaining line and dis boxes {Note 2), and meanwhile the
rack clerks set up their tray tables between the rack edges and


Stretcher bars (supported by pedestals). The "grip man" will
poke his head in the door about this time, and the pile of
nickels near by will be counted.

"Who's light on the grips?" the clerk-in-charge will bellow.

One or two absent-minded culprits will hasten up with
their nickels, and the "poor old grip" man departs. One clerk
will be sent out as an armed convoy for the first incoming
load of "mail of value" from the post office and is jokingly
ordered to bring back "a small load." If he returns, as he
usually must, with an overflowing truckful, his innocent ears
will ring to echoes of "Oh! heartless son of a gun!" and "We'll
never sf nd you again!" Such repartee, not always printable,
continues all the way "down the road." A little bag of locks
and twine is opened and the balls of string distributed; it is
a rather weak, linty jute, but many clerks insist on it, so they
can snap it with the fingers— despite the irritating fuzz which
fills the air. Other clerks use a twine knife, worn like a ring,
to cut the twine after tying knots; it also cuts open working
packages. Every clerk has a knife of some sort, from ornate
carved hunting blades on down; many get sharpened to a
curved remnant.

A brief bull session may await the first mail, or it may come
flooding in with the grips. Direct bags for large towns on and
beyond the line are often loaded in a separate storage car,
supervised by a certain clerk among other duties; he must
sometimes load and unload it. And going through a dark,
bouncing vestibule on a freezing night into a storage car a
dozen times is no fun, especially since its big sliding doors
usually stick like sin.

But there are mountains of mail coming into the R.P.O.
car, too; and to the cry of "On the belt!" or "Battle stations,
men!" the clerks line up to pass working pouches to the tables
in fast bucket-brigade style. Storage mail for smaller stops is
separated into bins at the ends, while working newspaper
sacks are piled at the paper table; excess working mails may
be piled on and under the tables and even in aisles and bins.

In a colorful ceremony, working pouches are recorded by
the clerk-in-charge and his "pouch caller," whose opening


cry is "On the hanger!" (the official check list often being
hung up). Incoming pouches are checked on this clip-board
list or checkboard by means of an amazing gibberish:

"From the Madhouse with a two— Tom Cat— Rockin' Chair
Line— Pennsy from the Doghouse— Win an' Bridge with a one
—West Working Holy Smoke— City of the Dead 3-X— Chat
438 Directs— Working on it— Forty-six— the other Chat— Em-
pire State with a six, Gyp— Ohio Working from the Grand—

Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 2 of 38)