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

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Another clerk on the Reading caught the hose from a water
tower alongside the Shamokin & Phila., a line known for
its "extension cranes" which reach to catch from an inside
track, A young clerk, assessed demerits for dispatching be-
yond the proper spot because the mail messenger always
stood there, hit a bull's-eye next trip and sent messenger and
mailbags rolling over together.

One clerk, teasing a sub after teaching him to catch, ex-
pressed deep concern one Sunday when the sub could catch
no pouches at the first two stops (they were not due that day).
Stating that this would never do and he'd better catch the
other offices himself, the clerk missed the next pouch (Rock-
ford, Minnesota), the only one due! Another found his train
moving too slowly and the hanging pouch too empty to be
caught properly, and sighed in relief when the brakeman
dashed out and retrieved the dropped pouch for him. Later
he discovered that his outgoing pouch was still in his hand!
In days of "sack time" one sleepy clerk was aroused too early
for an exchange and caught a coal-chute which broke off the
catcher; he installed a new one just in time. On Tol. & St.
Lou. (Wabash) Train 2 a knocked-down inbound pouch
bounced from the ground up onto the rear hook.

A district superintendent inspecting the Chic, Ft. Madison
& Kansas City (Santa Fe) was watching a catch about to be
made when it was discovered that the door was stuck. Both
the clerk. Bill Poole, and the official hit on the idea of using


a catcher in the car ahead; and they raced forward, with Bill
seemingly in hot pursuit of the latter and yelling, "Get that

son of a !" referring, of course, to the pouch. Men leaped

for tables and cases to avoid the raging fight which they

The whole spirit of "serving the local" was well summed
up by L. E. Davis, in the old Railway Post Office, who wrote,
"The train was Kans, City & Memphis 105, the Frisco's
crack Florida Special . . . through the Ozark hills. The night
was coal black, and it was awkward holding onto the mail
sack with one hand, the other on the crossbar . . . watching
for the faint glow of the light on the crane . . . The wind
tried to steal your breath away . , . There was both relief
and satisfaction when I heard the 'whing' of the pouch as
it was snatched. And on through the night the train rushed
from station to station, like the song 'Blues in the Night.'
From Thayer to Hoxie; from Hoxie to Jonesboro; from
Jonesboro to Memphis . . . The progressive stages of life
awakening: A few early risers in this town with a sprinkling
of lights, and half the town awake at the next station . . .
Darkies filing out to the cotton fields ... As the grand finale,
the Missisippi, muddy and turbulent."

To insure accuracy in distribution, the system of checking
"errors" was devised as explained elsewhere; by it, one takes
the slip from mail received from another and checks on the
back any errors in sorting perceived. These affect a clerk's
record, and naturally he resents being "checked" too zeal-
ously. Theoretically, clerks are required to check all errors
noted, but in the press of urgent distribution it is often
impracticable. "It is only human nature to try to catch an
error on someone who always checks you; while if a line is
broad-minded about checking yours, you go easy with them."
Some conscientious clerks, trying to check all errors, have
been hounded out of the Service by their fellows, or at least
ordered privately to desist.

One sub, helping on a short run, lacked hours and was
assigned to work a couple of hours in a car in the yards after
his run. It happened to be a train for which he made sacks


of papers, and one day he opened a sack in this yard car,
hastily checked some newspaper errors, and sent the slips in
without a glance. He had checked himself! A nortiiern clerk
named Ulysses S. Grant had to watch his distribution for
southern trains like a lynx— the famous name he bore was
none too popular in Dixie as yet.

Pranksters in the Service sometimes get back at overzeal-
ous superiors. A certain division superintendent used to issue
harsh orders on minor irregularities, and finally the clerks
got up a fake "General Order" printed like the genuine and
gave it out. It contained such notices as:

Section 1. General. It is hereby ordered that all clerks in
this division make up Shanghai Dis, regardless of quantity,
to contain all offices on the Fook Lang Shang Hop San R.P.O.
as far west as Tai Po Sing.

Considerable complaint is made that mail for the late
Robert G. Ingersoll is being sent to New Jerusalem. Extreme
care should be taken to dispatch mail for this party accord-
ing to Mark 16:16.

Section 2. Suspensions. A clerk of Class 5, this Division,
thirty-five days without pay for failing to cross two "t's"
and dot an "i" in his trip report; also, one day without pay
for purloining a registered letter.

When Oscar Johnson was "tending local" on San Fran.,
San Jose & L. A. (SP) Train 71 years ago, he exchanged the
usual small pouch with Surf, California, and was horrified
after leaving there to find that a huge "2X" pouch for the
same town had been "carried by"— little knowing that the
San Francisco letter clerk had relabeled a big pouch of "city"
with that name, behind his back, as a practical joke. At San
Luis Obispo the city clerk, "up" on all his pouches except
that one, missed it and yelled at Johnson to find the "Surf"
pouch for him, relates J. Goodrich.

"I got rid of it," assured Johnson: "just put it out, to go
back on Train 71!" And the dumbfounded Frisco clerk had
to dash out in the rain, have Train 71 held and hunt through


a truckful of pouches before he returned, drenched, with
his mail.

F. C. Gardiner relates a gay tale of the Wash. 8: Bristol
(Sou) in Virginia. One of the clerks, prevented from smok-
ing at home, started each run with a cigar always in his
mouth;— no one could understand a word he said, and when-
ever the clerk-in-charge heard grunts from him at any station,
he assumed it was pouches being called. A water tank had
developed a leak which, it developed, had not been fixed as
supposed; and when the water boy filled it again at Roanoke,
water flooded the floor, causing the disptaching clerk to yell:

"CUDDEWADDEROFF!" The clerk-in-charge, in the
other end of the car, grabbed his pouch record and yelled,
"That's one."

"CUDDEWADDEROFF!" again cried the cigar-mouth-
ing clerk.

"That's two," yelled the C.-in-C, knowing three pouches
were due off there.

"CUDDEWADDEROFF!" the dispatcher bawled, louder,
to the railroad men.

"That's all!" cried the chief, and dropped his check list.

DEWADDEROFF!" screamed the clerk, jumping up and
down like a jumping jack. The head man turned, looked
over his spectacles, and remarked, "Well, boys, I gues it's
time to call them to take him to the bughouse."

A clerk on the afore-mentioned "Boundary Line" run
missed his train (a one-man run), told the dispatcher the
railroad could not be paid for the unoccupied car, and got
him to hold it until he caught up to it from the next
train! Similarly, a clerk who forgot to put off a local pouch
until he was half a mile out of town pulled the stop cord
and asked that the train be backed up. The request was
refused "with definite references to animals and ancestry,"
but he coaxed a farmer driving some bulls to town to take
his pouch on in.

And that brings us to the most famous of all railway mail
animal stories. Owney, the famous traveling dog of the


R.P.O.s, attached himself to the Albany, New York, post
office in 1888, and the clerks made a collar identifying him
therewith. Taken out for one trip in a mail car, he became
an inveterate traveler. To his collar were attached checks,
medals, verses, and postmarks by men in most states of the
Union, plus a dollar from Old Mexico. Postmaster General
Wanamaker made him a harness to carry the tags and medals,
with memo book attached, but the accumulation became
too heavy and it was sent to Albany for display.

Owney was shut up in Montreal for nonpayment of board,
which the Albany clerks had to foot; and seapost clerks later
took him across the ocean— even to Japan, for a tag bestowed
by the Emperor, and thence around the world (in 132 days).
He was exhibited with his medals in halls and dog shows as
"The greatest dog traveler in the world," and was right in
his element at postal clerks' conventions. He stole the show
at the 1897 National Association of Railway Postal Clerks
(now N.P.T.A.) Convention by wagging his stumpy tail in
a run down the aisle, to thunderous cheers, to mount the
stage. He looked all around in glee, and it was fifteen minutes
before order was restored.

It was Owney's last triumph. He was a very ordinary-look-
ing dog, almost ugly; and when he was in Toledo that
August the postmaster did not know who he was and ordered
him shot. The body was eventually mounted and sent to the
old Post Office Department Museum in Washington, thence
to several Worlds' Fairs, ending with the Chicago Century
of Progress (1933), always attracting great attention. Today,
resting in storage at the Washington City Post Office, is all
that remains of the faithful "clerks' best friend" who had
traveled 143,000 miles and received 1,017 medals.

And as a final sequel, it seems that Owney has an inanimate
successor of today which is traveling in R.P.O. pouches all
over the United States and Canada— an old gray hat from
California named "Dapper Dan!" Plastered with postmarks
and tags inside and out, an album was finally attached to
hold photos and data, and it was last heard of near Quebec
about 1948.

Chaptkr 6


Louder rolls the mighty thunder, louder changs the tireless bell,
Wilder shrieks the warning whistle; each the startling story tell.
Pouring out the canvas pouches on each platform without fail-
Like a hunted deer, still flying, speeds the early morning mail . . .

— A. M. Bruner

In the early days of our republic the evolu-
tion of mail transportation from horse, sulky,
and stage to steamboat and railroad was a steady
and dramatic development. (Deputy Post-
master Hazard, who followed the Continental
Army around 1776 with letters in his knap-
— Courtesy Pojia/ sack, has been humorously dubbed "the earli-
Markings est traveling post office.") The germ of transit
mail service was planted in 1810, when a law
was passed establishing thirty-five "Distributing Post Offices"
—important post offices in centers of areas, counties, or states
to which all mail was sent for redistribution in that area, and
on to destination. The number of these offices, known as
D.P.O.s, increased to fifty by 1859, then the number gradually
fell and their function was absorbed by the railway mail cars
after 1864.

The distinction between the through mail for Distributing
Post Offices, often called the "great mails," and local way-
station mail was long maintained; iron locks were provided
for the way mail and brass ones for the D.P.O. bags. D.P.O.
postmasters received a commission for each letter redistrib-
uted. Postage stamps had not been introduced, and post-
masters entered each letter, and the postage due on it, on a



waybill which was tied up with letters going to a D.P.O. in
brown paper. Its record was entered on the wrapper, and
the packets, so wrapped, were referred to as "mails."

Mails were first carried by railroad in England in 1830 on
the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. The same year our
first steam passenger road was opened by the BScO from
Baltimore to EUicott City, Maryland (May 24, 1830), and
soon Peter Cooper ran his famous race of thirteen miles be-
tween his Tom Thumb engine and a powerful gray horse of
Stockton & Stokes' mail stage. The slipping of a blower
belt on the engine gave the race to the horse and the mail
contract once more to the stage, but the iron horse was soon
to prevail. The earliest record of mail being carried by rail-
road is January 15, 1831, when some was hauled unofficially
on the South Carolina Railroad, now mostly the Columbia &
Charleston (Sou) R.P.O. The locomotive used was the Best
Friend, first American-built engine, and it went to Bamberg,
South Carolina.

The above date is disputed and held by some to be 1834,
which, if true, would change the "firsts," because in 1831 and
1832 contracts were let to other operators, extra pay being
granted for carrying the mail by rail as far as West Chester,
Pennsylvania (over what is now the PRR's electric Phila. &
West Chester R.P.O.), starting December 5, 1832, by Slay-
maker & Tomlinson stages— perhaps the first authorized "mail
by rail." It is hard to verify "firsts," for the contractors
quickly transferred mails from stage or sulky to rails over
portions of their routes as soon as possible. During 1832, and
perhaps earlier in the year, mails were also carried over the
B&O out of Baltimore, on the Saratoga k Schenectady Rail-
road in New York— unofficial partial transfers from stage
routes to the rails— and on what was probably the first com-
plete mail-by-rail route authorized officially, New Jersey's
Camden & Amboy Railroad, contracted by Postmaster Gen-
eral Barry; it later became the PRR's New York &: Phila.
R.P.O., still referred to as "The Amboy." The BXcO route
used later became the old Bait, k Point of Rocks R.P.O. ,
on tracks no longer carrying mail; it first hauled mail officially


on this route in November 1834, to Frederick, Maryland,
which is usually quoted as the first mail-carrying by rail. On
August 25, 1835, the BR:0 was formally opened between
Washington and Baltimore, and the following month con-
tracts were let (still to the stage company) providing for mail
to be carried partially by rail. The first orders, September
ninth, provided for the exchange of mails once a day by day-
light by rail. All night mail on that line was to go by stage,
and coaches were held ready to receive any mail not arriving
at the depot in time for the train. A direct contract was let
January 1, 1838. Before that date, which is important in
railroad mail history, advance had been made, although the
report of 1837 showed but one contract with a railroad: it
was on the Reading, from Philadelphia to Mauch Chunk,
Pennsylvania, with branches to Reading and Port Carbon,
117 miles.

It was in the shift from stage to rails that a new job or
profession appeared— that of the route agent, forerunner of
the postal transportation clerk. On the old stage lines a local
postmaster, who usually had his office in the tavern, took the
mail portmanteau and opened it, exchanging "mails" while
the stage driver changed horses. On the railroads this could
not be done, except in a few instances where post offices were
moved to depots; and soon a man was assigned to accompany
the mail on the train, a separate apartment being set aside
for the mails in some cases in 1835. This agent usually rode
in the baggage cars, however, and was at first the baggage-
man or other employee of the stage company or railroad.

In May 1837 the Post Office Department began appointing
"route agents" of its own on some lines, the first recorded
being John E, Kendall, who ran from Philadelphia to Wash-
ington, beginning at that time. Others followed, and were
equipped with postmarking stamps to use on the local letters
received along the way. The earliest known postmark is an
Old English "Railroad" stamped by a route agent on the
Mohawk &: Hudson R.R, in New York State on November
7, 1837. (If anybody has a cancellation earlier than this date,
he has something valuable.)


With rapid appearance of railroads, Congress, on July 7,
1838, declared all railroads to be post roads and provided for
making direct contracts for mail by rail wherever the cost
would not exceed by 25 per cent the cost by stage. It was
really accepting and legalizing the iron age for mail, be-
cause the Niles Register, May 18, 1838, describes the "progress
and perfection" of route agent service then as follows:

Mail cars constructed under the direction of the Post
Office Department are now running on the railroads be-
tween Washington and Philadelphia [now the N.Y. &
Wash. R.P.O. (PRR)]. They contain two apartments:
one appropriated to the use of the great mails, and the
other to the way mails; and a post-office agent. The latter
apartment is fitted up with boxes, labeled with names of
all the small offices on or near the railroad lines. It has
also a letter box in front, into which letters may be put
up to the moment of starting the cars, and anywhere on
the road. The agent of the Post Office Department at-
tends the mail from the post offices at the ends of the
route, and sees it safely deposited in his car. As soon as
the cars start, he opens the letter box and takes out all the
letters, marking them so as to designate the place where
they are put. He then opens the way-mail bag and distri-
butes its contents into the several boxes. As the cars ap-
proach a post office, the agent takes out the contents of
the proper box and puts them into a pouch. The engi-
neer slackens the speed of the train, and the agent hands
the pouch to a postmaster or a carrier, who stands be-
side the track to take it, receiving from him at the same
time another pouch with the matter to be sent from that
office. This the agent immediately opens and distributes
its contents into the proper boxes. Having supplied thus
all the way offices, the agent, when arrived at the end of
the route, sees the mail safely delivered into the post

In conclusion, the writer become eloquent over this service.
He actually calls it a "traveling post office," and asserts that
"well executed, the plan must be almost the perfection of


mail arrangements. It is intended ... to extend a similar
arrangement through to New York."

In view of this little-known auspicious start in transit-
sorting of mail, it may seem strange that transit-mail distri-
bution progressed so slowly and that the coming of the mod-
ern Railway Post Office was delayed until 1864. "Assorting,"
of course, meant the sorting of packets of local letters
(wrapped) and of letters brought to the train for mailing or
from the post office after closing of pouches. The equipment
and service described above were rather exceptional, and not
foimd on many routes. But the existence and importance of
these agents, who were "assorting" transit mails en route for
twenty-seven years before true R.P.O.s appeared, have now
been likewise attested from numerous other documented
definitions or descriptions of their duties.

A typical pre-R.M.S. route-agent apartment, later in use
by Agent J. E. White (a future general superintendent) was
"a 7-by-l 0-foot apartment partitioned from the smoker"
with sliding doors in both sides for exchanges, one opening
across a gangway. The small letter case, table, and large
packet boxes were illumined by a "wretched light . . . dingy
oil lamps— as much light as a tallow dip of the third magni-
tude." His simple distribution was purely local, and the mail
received "made up."

Also in 1838, the Postmaster General had a special presi-
dential message carried from Philadelphia to New York by
railroad mail in five hours (one hour faster than by stage) on
December twelfth; and a month later definite authorization
for railroad mail pay at $300 per mile annually was made.
Meanwhile mail agents were appointed to the B8:0 Railroad.
The earliest cancellation known on the B&O was dated
August 17, 1838, and read "BALTO R.R." For many years
routine instructions on duties of route agents were:

1st. To receive letters written after the mail is closed,
also way letters unpaid or prepaid, accounting to the
deputy postmaster at the end of the route for all prepaid
postage received, and to hand over said letters to the


proper office for delivery of mailing, reporting a list of all
such letters to the Auditor of the Department.

2nd. To assort the mails for the several offices, being
intrusted with the key to the iron lock for that purpose.

3rd. To attend to the delivery and reception of mail

4th. To report all irregularities of service on the route.

The duties of a route aj^ent included accompanying; the
mail bags and pouches to the train and receiving them in his
compartment or part of bap^cjage car. Tlien, as the train
pulled out, he opened the letter box on the car platform and
took out late-mailed letters. Before 1847, when stamps were
introduced, he made out waybills for collection at delivery
point on all late letters. In a car sometimes equipped with
pigeonholes, he would distribute the way mail taken from
the letter box, any way mail handed him, and that which he
took from the iron-locked pouch given him on starting his
run. He canceled letters brought to his car. Before reaching
the station, he would take from its box that town's mail,
mostly "mails" or wrapped packets and papers, and put them
in a pouch for the local station. Mail or "mails" received at
each station were treated the same as his initial mail, only
local letters being dispatched en route, no connecting lines
being dispatched until 1849. Mail for every office beyond the
terminal of his run was made into sacks and packages for the
terminal office or nearest D.P.O.

The compartment, boxes, and other equipment for route
agents varied from the unfurnished end of a baggage car to
compartments provided with boxes, a table, chair and pigeon-
holes. Agents were highly praised for their intelligence,
honesty, fidelity, and hard work. They were early armed,
and their compartment bore a sign of "No Admission." Fre-
quently inspectors, and, on one exception, Postmaster Gen-
eral Hall, tried to enter the compartment incognito; they
invariably found it next to impossible. The railroads com-
plained, however, that too many inspectors and postal agents
were riding free on their various passes, and this was often


cited in mail-pay squabbles when officials tried to reduce the
cost of mail transportation (averaging $50 to $300 a mile in
1845). Some railways canceled all mail shipments, where-
upon the Department used agents who (as passengers) carried
mail in trunks. Hence service did not expand as fast as it
should have, but all main lines soon had route agents.

Route agents were provided between Boston and Spring-
field and between Worcester, Massachusetts, and Norwich,
Connecticut, in 1840; from Philadelphia on, agents were ex-
tended to New York in 1848, and between Boston and Albany
by 1850. Numerous other routes were established as railroad
building extended westward. It was soon seen that the weak
spot in the system was the Distributing Post Office at junction
points and termini, where the "mails" had to be redistributed
—■missing, of course, all close connections. An attempt was
made to remedy this in 1857 by establishing mail "express
agents" who continued from a line on to a connecting line
with through mail. Express agents went over the Erie and
on, by connecting lines, to Chicago, which somewhat speeded
up the mail westward. In 1860 through routes with express
agents were established from Boston to New York and on to
Washington. (An early type of express agent appeared about
1842— route agents carrying outside express packages.)

Express agents facilitated the through dispatches greatly
but did nothing for other lines and connections at junctions.
It is believed that in the 1850s some route agents, on their
own initiative, made up some pouches for other agents at
junctions. In Old Postbags, Holbrook states with regard to
the Boston-Springfield and Norwich-Worcester runs (the
latter the first route to build a car just to carry the mails)
that it is his opinion that there must have been "some sorting
of through mail" on these two particular runs. And in 1857
a proposal of the Postmaster General that "agents take
receipt" for pouches from other route agents, as well as from
postmasters and messengers, indicates there was some junc-
tion exchange of pouches, thus by-passing the D.P.O. at that
date. Unfortunately, the proposal was not carried out, or
we would have copies of pouch lists of the time, clearing up

Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 9 of 38)