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

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of the smaller companies) by the United Railways; and by
the end of the year forty-seven R.P.O. and C.P. routes had
been set up. Clerks collected mail from 288 special white-
painted street boxes, served practically all city stations and
eight suburban offices, and even exchanged mails with sixty-
three carrier routes— permitting the carriers to use part of
their letter cases to arrange their mail for delivery while the
postmen rode out on the cars. Both carriers and clerks made
up bags or pouches for many other street R.P.O.s and carrier
routes, whether they were intersecting or not. The govern-
ment paid the Railways four dollars per day per car,
including the wages of the motorman and his conductor or
trolley boy. A reporter from the St. Louis Republic, riding
an inauguaral trip, noted that "the denizens of North St.
Louis are much more given to letter writing" than those in
the South End, and that "it may be that the good people of
Carondelet . . . have not yet awakened to the fact that the . . .
mail-collecting system [here] is the best in the world." The
St. Louis lines were taken over by the R.M.S. shortly after
the beginning, but were turned over to the local post office
again in 1899, as were the routes in all other cities; most of
the best-known St. Louis lines were established later, in 1904.
But on November 15, 1915, the advent of motor mail trucks
caused the scrapping of all that city's services; one car re-
mained in use until very recently as a St. Louis P.S. rail-
grinder, and is no preserved in the St. Louis Electric Railway
Historical Society's outdoor museum.


Brooklyn— the second city to have streetcar R.P.O.s— had
five routes on the Brooklyn City Railway and the Atlantic
Avenue Railway; the first, ceremoniously opened August 8,
1894, was the Brooklyn &: Coney Island R.P.O. Cars No. 1,
5, and others served such longforgotten communities as West
Brooklyn, Lessers Park, and Unionville, all long since ab-
sorbed by the city. A combination R.P.O. -smoker, No. 101,
went via Adams Street to Thirty-Sixth Street on Atlantic
Avenue Railway tracks. All routes quit in 1914, including
the main 12-mile Brooklyn Circuit R.P.O.

Boston was next to install mail clerks on streetcars; five
lines were introduced May 1, 1895, on the W^est End Street
Railway (later Boston Elevated); two other routes followed.
Steam R.P.O. lines were connected at all raihvay stations,
and up to forty-fi\ e thousand letters were made up for carri-
ers daily on one route. Six lines were day runs; but the
longest, the Boston Circuit R.P.O., was a night rvm serving
twenty-one stations on three round trips and covering most
of the short-line routes. As it w-as the only line with sufficient
time to cancel much mail, postmarks of the other routes-
such as the 6.4-mile Boston & North Cambridge— are exceed-
ingly rare.

Fourth in line Avas Philadelphia, which opened its tw^elve-
mile "H Sc P R.P.O." on the Peoples Passenger Railway on
June 1, 1885, connecting Stations H and P; it was soon ex-
tended to form the Phila. R: Germantown R.P.O., Inter the
Phila. R: Chestnut Hill. The old G.P.O. at Ninth R: Market
Streets installed special spur tracks for cars of the various
street railway R.P.O.s, which soon increased to six or seven
in number; one, the 5-mi. Phila. R: Darby, reached that suburb
over one of the three streetcar routes contacting it. The three
original Philadelphia cars were full R.P.O.s, -^vith storage
stalls in one end and a 240-box letter case around all three
sides of the other; a rack in the middle held twelve pouches.
and a stamping table w^as opposite. Some routes operated
over the Peoples' Traction (which used trailers). Union Trac-
tion, and similar early systems; but all were soon consolidated
as the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, the present


"P.T.C." In 1015 tills company built a handsome new car
for the Ser\ ice, as ilhistrated herewith; dubbed ihe M-1, it
was noted for its smooth lines and spacious interior. The
appalHng disappointment of the P.R.T. can well be imagined
when, just two months later, on October eleventh, the
United States mail contract which expired on that date was
not renewed. All R.P.O. service had to be discontinued on
that date, and the proud M-1 was rebuilt as salt car L-12,
which at last report still operates over P.T.C. tracks today.
New York City, the fifth to install street railway post offices,
oddly enough had only one route (unless the Brooklyn lines
arc included). This was the very extensive, cable-operated
Third Avenue R.P.O. (3rdAvRy), which began operation of
its 1 2.1 -mile route with great fanfare on either September 27
or 28, 1895, in the presence of high officials, reporters, and a
huge crowd; the former \vere treated to refreshments at the
Colonial Hotel on One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street.
The new route eliminated handling of 951 daily direct
pouches over the steam elevated railway. Little white Brill
cable trailers were used— the twenty-foot, single-truck, open-
platform tvpe with three windows on each side and the letter-
ing "UNITED STATES MAIL" vying for attention with
two huge decorative circles. Later designated as the "Third
Ave. Distributing Car," the route ran from the old main post
office on Park Roav via the Bowery and Third Avenue to
serve old Stations D, F, H, Y, L, |- and others up to Wash-
ington Bridge, reaching the latter via 125th Street and Am-
sterdam Avenue, to 190tli Street. Its eight cars were lettered
"A," "B," "C," and so on, and were designed in Third Avenue
Railway shops from a fidl-size partial model by J. H. Robert-
son; they were loaded on sidings on Mail Street and pulled
by horses to the cable tracks. With 380 letter-case boxes in
each end, the little cars pouched on steam R.P.O.s and ad-
vanced mails to the depots by t\vo hours and more; twenty-six
clerks were used. Outmoded by the new pneumatic tubes

•Now known as Cooper fZone $), Murray Hill (Ifi). Grand Central (17-22),
Lenox Hill (21). Triborough (35), and Manhattanville (27) sutions,


and the electrified "el," the route gave up on September 28
or 30, 1900.

The sixth permanent system, one of the very largest and
most interesting, was that of Chicago. The city had just trebled
in size by absorbing suburban Lake View, Jefferson, Hyde
Park, and Lake, Illinois (who remembers them?), with their
factories and mail-order houses; and by 1895, Postmaster
Washington Hessing had persuaded Gth Division Superin-
tendent Lewis L. Troy, R.M.S., to experiment with specially
built postal street cars on Madison Street as early as May
twenty-fifth (before New York's first line). Aldermen tried
to block the new scheme as one forbidding traction men to
strike, but Mayor Swift issued special permits for each car.
A Pullman Palace cable trailer. No. I, made the first run,
leaving Madison and Rockwell Streets via the West Chicago
Street Railroad amid much ceremony and speechmaking:
"The poor man will be able to have his letter go . . . and be
delivered as quickly as by special messenger!" But no mail
was carried, clerks handled dummy pouches only in the cable
train loaded with notables. Two other routes were "begun"
simultaneously, but it was some days before even closed
pouches were carried.

Declared successful, the three runs were put into regular
operation and mail sorting begun on November 11, 1895:
postmarkers and official titles were supplied. Car No. 1,
used on the Chicago R: Madison Street R.P.O. (five miles),
was one of the most unusual in the country. It was a mail-
passenger combination with a skylight in the fifteen-foot
R.P.O. apartment, which contained a 176-box letter case.
Later cars, of the overhead-trolley type, were full R.P.O.
cars carrying up to three clerks; two were named the Wash-
ington Hessing and John H. Hubbard, after the postmaster
and his assistant; the white cars were richly decorated in gold.
During strikes the postal cars were respectfully exempted
from molestation, and traction companies began painting
cars to match until postal heads stopped it. The two other
pioneer routes were the Clark Street— Lincoln Avenue (later
Chicago & North Clark Street) R.P.O. on tlie North Chicago


Street Railroad (3.8 miles), and the Chicago Sc Milwaukee
Avenue (8.8 miles). The cable lines were mostly electrified
in 1889 and all routes taken over by the United Traction
Company. (The "Chic. &" was later dropped from titles or
changed to "Chic. 111.")

There were eventually six lines, mostly of great length;
one reached Evanston and another the American Corre-
spondence School— which sometimes "stuck" some luckless
trolley R.P.O. crew with seventy-five pouches of letters. A
circuit R.P.O. setup, without special postmark, was started in
1909 to serve fifteen stations, eleven of them directly, on an
eventual twenty-five mile run. By that time postal cars were
being barred from the city center because of traffic congestion,
but until then all daytime R.P.O. cars met regularly in the
Loop to exchange pouches, beginning at 5:30 A.M. daily and
making sixteen hourly round trips. At least eight cars and
thirty clerks were employed, as well as collectors and face-up
men with carts to collect from boxes or deliver bulk mail to
firms. From 60 to 420 pouches of mail were sorted in one
day or night on some lines; one line handled 3,260 pouches
(hauled or distributed) in one day in 1909. Clerks canceled
and sorted the mail, then pouched (1) on all stations en route
both ways, (2) on the opposite car of their route, (3) on the
G.P.O., and (4) on steam R.P.O. lines at depots. But pneu-
matic tubes and motor trucks doomed the s)stem; it folded,
completely, on November 21, 1915.

Chicago, however, saw the revival of one of its streetcar
R.P.O.s tor one glorious day of renewed operations thirty-one
years later, on August 23, 1946. It was to help celebrate the
Diamond Jubilee of the American Philatelic Society, which
includes some R.P.O.-postmark collectors. The Chicago Sur-
face Lines brought out its one well-preserved R.P.O. car,
renovated to its original condition at a cost of $10,000 (tor
the subway-opening transit parade in 1943), and operated it
once more from the Hamilton Hotel to the post office,
manned with mail clerks. Bereft of modern motors, it was
hauled by another car, and its special postmark of


"CHICAGO. ILL./STREET CAR R.P.O." was given to
thousands of addressed "covers."

Cincinnati was the next city to have a trolley postal system,
but only on one line: the 7.6-mile Walnut Hills & Brighton
(CinStRy), begun November 11,1895. This R.P.O. was later
retitled the "BRIGHTON CAR," using standard city flag
cancels with that phrase in the "killer"; it served Brighton
and other suburbs, operating a handsome four-wheel, open-
platform car until 1915.

The nation's capital then joined the parade with its 4.86-
mile Pennsylvania Avenue R.P.O. (CTCo); a sixteen-foot ex-
horsecar trailer was rebuilt for the first trip on December 23,
1895, from the Georgetown carhouse to the Navy Yard. No
"token" service, the initial run was swamped with huge bags
of Christmas mail, which "were quickly sorted." Cars
pouched on Georgetown, Central, and other stations as well
as steam R.P.O. trains. This, too, was a cable line; and when
its powerhouse burned, the company operated our only
known horsccar R.P.O. from September 30, 1897, to April
1898. The R.M.S. chief clerk, G. Car, selected A. B. Carter
and D. J. Bartello as the first trolley R.P.O. clerks there, and
their names, together with that of J. P. Connolly of New
York's Third Avenue R.P.O. (later a writer), are alone en-
shrined in our public records of known clerks who pioneered
in this remarkable field. Permanent cars numbered 1 and 2,
ICE" in red and gold, were introduced later; they sorted an
average of 162 letter packages, 22 sacks, and 128 pouches
daily. The route, as well as two short-lived lines begun later,
was converted to conduit trolley operation long before final
discontinuance in 1913. At last report one car was still used
by Capital Transit as a yard tool shed.

San Francisco fell in line in 1896, with three lines begun
simuhancously on September tTventy-eio;hth; the main one,
a cable route, beinir the four-mile Market Street or Market
Street k San Francisco R.P.O. (MktStRy), operating from the
Ferry Station to Stanyan Street. Service on all lines quit
September 4, 1905, but cars continued in closed-pouch serv-


ice, and one was caught in the street by the 1906 earthquake
and fire. Rochester, New York, installed its East Side and
West Side R.P.O.s (Rochester Electric Railway) in 1896 over
15.3 miles of route; later they were retitled "Car Collection
Service B" and "C," and cars lettered accordingly, and quit
about 1908. The Baltimore system was to follow next.

In 1898, Pittsburgh's lone route was added to the list of
street R.P.O.'s; its 12.4-mile Fifth k Penn Avenue Circuit
R.P.O. (PghRys) began operating that year on Valentine's
Day. It was discontinued in 1917, after being retitled simply
as the "Street Car" or "Street" R.P.O. ; a Duquesne Traction
Company route to the East End, likewise planned to carry
clerks, remained a C.P. No more cities were equipped until
Seattle inaugurated its oddly titled Seattle k Seattle R.P.O.
(SMuRy); this loop used Car "A" mostly, and quit in 1913.
The next to last city to install street R.P.O.s was Cleveland;
its Cleveland Circuit R.P.O. (CERy) was introduced on Car
0204 on an experimental basis March 1, 1908. Placed in
regular service April third, it operated until about 1920. Last
of all was Omaha, introducing five lines (July 1, 1910-March
10, 1921) using "white tram cars," including the 5-mile Omaha
& Benson and the Union Depot & Stockyards R.P.O.s
(ORrCBStRy). Cancels are very rare. In contracting for ser-
vice, the government cautioned that its clerk could not be
compelled to act as trolley boy, as the company had hoped!

Most remarkable, however, was the splendid set-up used in
Baltimore, a highly-efficient example of a city-distribution sys-
tem never yet quite duplicated by modern methods. Its three
main lines were opened May 29, 1897, using sixteen-foot,
single-truck rebuilt passenger cars— the Towson & Catonsville,
Arlington 8: South Baltimore (to Fairfield), and Roland Park &
St. Helena R.P.O.s (City&Sub-BaltTrac). The white cars had
blue and gold decorations and circular dark-glass monograms
reading "U.S.M." In the light-oak-finished interiors busy
clerks sorted an average 120 pouches and 56 sacks of mail
daily, at a cost of about $34,000 annually. A photo of Car 220
shows a wire cowcatcher in front of the open-front platform,
and the proud lettering "UNITED STATES RAILWAY


POST OFFICE" (different from Washington's) on the side.
The traction companies consolidated as tiie United Railway
& Electric (now Baltimore Transit), which built six new cars
to Post OfRce Department specifications in 1903— twenty-six
feet long and weighing 18,691 pounds. At least fifteen clerks
were employed, up to three on each car; eleven carrier sta-
tions and twenty-four substations were pouched on, as well
as steam R.P.O.s at depots as elsewhere.

Not only were both local and express R.P.O. cars (with
appropriate signs) operated— the Baltimore cars even made
"catches on the fly"! It was done by the clerk leaping out as
the car slo^ved, emptying the collection box, and catching up
to his R.P.O. "with lightning rapidity." In 1910 the Arl.
& S. Bait, was renamed the Bait, k Arlington, and the
Roland Park &: St. Helena, no longer reaching that suburb
near Dundalk, was curtailed as the Rol. Park R: Highland-
to^vn. But the ToAvson 8: Catonsville tapped far suburbs at
both ends, even reaching Ellicott City, miles beyond Caton-
ville (possibly by closed-pouch extension). Cars converged
upon the main post office daily at 5 A.M., where the clerks
would unlock them and begin runs lasting until midnight.
The lines became a Baltimore institution; residents timed
their sleep by the cars' passage, and tourists gaped at the
only such installation in America after World War I. But
by the late 1920s s^varming traffic had sleeved the little old
cars intolerably; speedy motor trucks offered ser\'ice so fast
as to overcome both the advantages of distribution in transit
and the lightninglike collections while traveling.

Thus it was that on November 5, 1929, Second Assistant
Postmaster General Smith Purdtim— himself a veteran Mary-
land R.M.S. man— regretfullv signed an order terminating
the last street-railway post offices in the United States. And
on November ninth, just twenty short years ago, the final
trip of all was made over ihe old "Tows. R: Catons." Before
the end of the month the cars had been broken up for scrap.
Todav Baltimore Transit's speedy streamlined passenq;er
trolleys still ply over the tracks from Towson to Catonsville,
but they arrived too late for restoration of the unique


R.P.O. to be considered, though the once-speedy mail trucks
which doomed it are in turn often slowed in today's choked

Although the doom of the city lines had been foreshad-
owed as early as 1899 (General Superintendent White, though
very hopeful for them, pointed out how the shortness of
routes and many petty disruptions prevented efficient or
complete distribution) there Avere numerous other suburban
and interurban trolley R.P.O. routes which survived far
longer. All have now been discontinued— largely because the
entire interurban line quit; but on the other hand, city
streetcars still carry passengers (and in some cases pouch
mail) over quite a few of the former city R.P.O. routes.

Two of our most picturesque interurban R.P.O.s were
on the Indiana Railroad, a farflimg traction system consoli-
dating most of the earlier long-distance trolley companies of
Indiana. One route, the seventy-six-mile Peru S: Indianapo-
lis, operated for only three years (September 2, 1935— Sep-
tember 10, 1938); like its companion route, it was part of the
vast interurban trolley network of yesterday by which one
could travel on connecting cars from central New York State
clear to the heart of Wisconsin or down into Kentucky.
This R.P.O. operated a fifteen-foot mail apartment in one
passenger car on daily round trips. Its service, extended to
South Bend, was revived in H.P.O. form in 1941 (Chap. 16).
The other route, the eighty-six mile Fort Wayne k New
Castle (IRR), was one of the most interesting of all trolley
R.P.O. runs. It served fifteen post offices directly, and many
others through these; a one-man run (two weeks on and one
off), it was supplied by substitutes the third week. It began
operation on September 2, 1935, as the Waterloo & Dunreith,
to replace R.P.O. runs which competing steam roads had
given up; its route had been consolidated from four connect-
ing trolley systems (the FtWRrNW, FtWR:N, UTI, and
THR-E). The extensions to Waterloo and to Dunreith were
dropped in 1937. It used a fifty-ton car even longer than a
coach (sixty-one feet), although separated by bulkheads into
passenger, motorman's, and R.P.O. (fifteen-foot) compart-


ments, connected by two-foot creep doors. Bob Richardson
has given a tlirilling account of a typical winter run of this
R.P.O. which sliould be perused by every reader of these
words^— he describes the dark bulk of Car 376 looming beside
Fort Wayne's "one bright spot" (the interurban station) at 5
A.M. . . . the huge pile of pouches loaded into the R.P.O.
. . . the screeching of wheels on frozen s\vitches . . . tearing at
65 mph through snow-covered helds . . . breakneck exchanges
with mail messengers at way stops . . . freezing canceling ink
. . . througli Bluffton and iMuncie, America's book-renowned
"Middletown" . . . the clerk, in crushed hat and sweater-
overalls combination, scooting through the "doghouse door"
to chin with the conductor . . . coasting downgrade into New
Castle to the courthouse at 8 A.AL

So heavy was the R.P.O.'s "business" that even the vesti-
bules and passenger seats had to be filled with overflow mail-
bags. But the bus-minded Indiana Railroad was determined
to scrap all of its safe and commodious trolley service, even
knowing the new buses could never equal its speed. And on
January 18, 1941, the faithful R.P.O. made its last run— north
out of New Castle, ^^•ith little publicity; only seven hundred
collectors' covers were handled, the motorman getting the
last one (at Fort Wayne). People came to watch the car at
every crossroads, and village postmasters brought their last
pouches to the car ^\'ilh unashamed tears in their eyes. Sold
to Chicago's South Shore Line, Car 376 was rebuilt as their
present Line Car 1101. The new Fort Wayne Sc Indianapolis
H.P.O. restored service to the route January 17, 1949.

Two famous old routes were begun about 1910 on the
Great Northern's "Inland Empire" interurban division— the
ninety-mile Spokane R: Moscow (from Washington State to
Idaho's "Psychiana" headquarters) and the thirty-two-mile
Coeurd'AleneR: Spokane (Ida.-Wash.; both SCd'A&P). The
heavy, exclusively mail-express-baggage interurbans were
given up in April 1939, on the Moscow route and on the
other by the next year or so. Called "The Greenacres," this

•"Indiana's Trolley Car P.O.," Linn's Weekly, Sidney, Ohio, March 9, 1940.


run to Coeur d'Alene (the only R.P.O. with an apostrophied
title) was one of two known trolley R.P.O.s to have inspired
poetic publication! Substittite Adrian B. Dodge describes its
story in the Raihuay Post Office, soon alter discontinuance;
proud of his little office "fifteen feet troin stem to stern," he
nevertheless recalls one startling crash when the trolley pole
got caught and jammed into the root:

... It gives the clerk a might queer feeling

As it pokes its way through the express-car ccilingi

The other trolley R.P.O. to have brought forth published
verses in its memory was the grand old Greenfield & Spring-
field (Northhampton St. Ry.— Conn. Val.) in Massachusetts.
In the absence of an early-morning steam train for upvalley
points, this service was begun at the insistence of Postmaster
Cambell of Northampton and leading newspapers. It used
Car 500, a forty-one-foot Watson Car Works model with
ornate gilt striping and lettering, two large sliding doors,
and mail slots. Officials riding the inaugural run in August
1901 pronounced it a great success; the forty-three-mile route
served Northampton and Holyoke en route, with alternate
runs via West Springfield and via Chicopee Falls. Robert T.
Simpson was the one-man run's first clerk; and, probably
alone of all interurban R.P.O.s, it worked Springfield and
Northampton city mail. Cars delivered newspapers direct to
newsdealers and exchanged pouches by "matching doors" at
sidings. The clerk must have changed cars at Northampton,
for No. 150 of the Connecticut Valley Street Railway (mail-
passenger combination) was used north of there. Pouches for
Hatfield, Massachusetts, were flung directly on the doorstep
of the house containing the post office, reported Clerk
William B. Quilty, at night— until he was finally furnished
with a key to "steal inside with it like a burglar."

Tearing along at 50 to 60 mph, the cars were scheduled
an hour faster than passenger runs— and were known to pitch
ne\v subs headfirst into some open mail sack in the rack.
Others suffered acutely from car sickness; but not even the
worst blizzard ever stopped the service. Cars connected with


the old Williamsburg &: Northampton R.P.O. (North. St. Ry),
which began operating much earlier on July 5, 1895; this
branch to "Burghy" used a small, boxlike full R.P.O. car,
No. 38. The poem which immortalized the line, Phil Bolger's
Flight of the Green & Spring, was published in a leading
Springfield newspaper— an excerpt from it is at the head of
this chapter. The route folded up in 1924.

Also in New England was the Camden R: Rockland in
Maine, on the Knox County Electric (or RT8:C). Contro-
versy still rages as to whether this short roadside line was a
streetcar or interurban R.P.O.; it operated for eight miles
out from the M.C. station in Rockland until the early 1930s,

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