Originally published in the Hannibal Courier-Post June 18, 1988
J. HURLEY AND
Important events and circumstances, when replaced by new procedures, fade into the past with amazing speed. Some of these activities and ways of life should not be forgotten.
One such procedure which is rarely recalled today is the efficient and fascinating method of sorting and delivering mail from one community to another by use of the Railway Post Office attached to fast moving passenger trains.
For a hundred years, 1870-1970, letters and other mail received in a local post office which were directed to other communities were postmarked and thrown into a mail pouch which was then delivered to a mail car or Railway Post Office (RPO) at the local railroad station to be transported to its destination.
This should be of special interest to local citizens because Hannibal had a key part in the development of this national method of mail delivery. This process started on July 28, 1882, when the first railroad car manufactured for sorting U.S. mail on trains was constructed in the Hannibal-St. Joseph railroad shops. The shops were located beneath Lovers’ Leap. The purpose of the mail car was to speed mail delivery by sorting the mail en route.
The first RPO car was constructed under the supervision of H.C. Whitting, master car-builder for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. The idea for the mail car and the general plan for it came from Gen. William A. Davis, postmaster of St. Joseph, Missouri. He was concerned that mail for towns west of St. Joseph arrived by train in a single pouch and had to be sorted before it could be dispatched further. Sometimes this caused delays of one to two days as connections with stage coach departures could not be made until the mail was sorted. The mail car was essentially a post office on wheels.
Improvements were made when additional mail cars were built; however, the basic plan was maintained. By 1870, all railroads had profitable mail contracts and used RPO cars.
The hey-day for the RPO system was during the 1940s. More than 4,000 RPO cars on 15,000 different routes criss-crossed the United States each day. Thirty thousand clerks worked at break-neck speed to sort millions of pieces of mail and tie them into packages which were ready for further distribution. The amount of mail handled was tremendous and all of this work had to be completed before the train reached its destination. Chicago was the major terminal of the RPO system. On October 17, 1944, one fast mail train consisting of the locomotive and 82 mail cars loaded with Christmas gifts and mail, ran non-stop from Chicago to Omaha.
Equipment was important but it was the Railway Postal clerks who made the system work. Clerks had to be sharp of mind to memorize and know the names of 6,000 to 10,000 towns plus the names of the railroad companies and their routes leading to those towns. They were tested frequently, which required that hours of a clerk’s free time were spent studying postal case examinations. Cash and negotiable securities were often sent through the mail and consequently, a great degree of honesty was required of the RPO clerks.
RPO clerks also had to be physically strong. They had to handle mail pouches and sacks which weighed seventy pounds or more. The employment requirements included meeting a minimum and maximum free of disease or physical defect and having an aptitude for arduous work. It was not easy to get a job as an RPO clerk. While procedures changed over the years, applicants of the 1920 to 1930 period who were successful in meeting the written and physical requirements had their names placed on an eligible list, probably only those who scored 90 or above would be hired. After getting on the eligible list, it might require several more years to a substitute appointment and several more to become a regular RPO clerk.
Hannibal men who were RPO clerks in the early days and who worked on the Hannibal headout runs, included: Joseph P. Forsyth, John L. Scott, Forrist L. Simpson, Clarence McCullough and Willis C. Nicely. Other Hannibal RPO clerks were John F. Davis, Elmer C. Bowling, Russel F. Newbery, C.R. McDaniel, J.E. McKinzie, J.E. Foster, J.D. Sharp, Melvin B. Wickens, Carl Hooten and James W. Alexander. These last ten men were all clerks on the K-Line (Burlington and St. Louis RPO).
RPO clerks were proud of the accuracy of their work. In earlier years, the facing slip covering of each package of letters showed the name of the clerk making it up, so errors could be traced back to the clerk who had made them. At one time, 97 percent accuracy was required on case examination.
RPO cars were not built for the comfort of the clerks. Work quarters were cramped and the footing was always unstable because of the swaying of the moving train. The RPO cars were usually either too hot or too cold, and the amenities for clerks were limited. In early days, RPO cars had pot-bellied stoves at each end of the cars, always requiring attention. Later, cars were steam heated from the locomotive, but the frequent opening of the doors to dispatch or catch mail caused drafty cars and uncertain heating. During hot summer days many times the cars would be like ovens as air conditioning was not provided for ROP cars.
The mail cars varied in length but were of uniform width. The first car, called U.S. Mail Number 1, was 30 feet long. Later, cars were built 60 to 70 feet long. In each car an aisle was so narrow that a very fat clerk could slide through but could not walk down the aisle. A sorting table, waist high, ran almost the length of the car on one side of the aisle. At the back of the sorting table and flat against the side of the car were letter cases sometimes called pigeon holes. Pigeon holes were four inches high. Labels above the pigeon holes had the names of cities, states or connecting RPO lines so that clerks could sort the mail quickly and accurately. Incasing the letters, the clerk would face the mail (arrange it so that the addresses all faced the same way) and tie it into packages when distribution was complete. Letter packages were then pouched for delivery en route, or for proper separation at end of run.
On the side of the car opposite the sorting table collapsible racks which held open pouches or sacks to receive the bundles of sorted mail. As a pouch was filled and after all sorting had been done, the pouch was locked with a special padlock. Pouches were made of heavy canvas and leather.
RPO clerks living away from terminals had railroad passes which enabled them to ride to the city where their work began. The YMCA in St. Louis and other important railroad centers maintained special hotels for railroad workers including RPO clerks. Frequently it was necessary to “lay over” a night between runs or catch a train home if the clerk lived in some other community. The accommodations brought together men with mutual interests and helped create a camaraderie among RPO clerks. At one time or another most Hannibal RPO clerks used the St. Louis Railroad YMCA.
There were many small towns at which the train did not stop. At these towns, the mail was exchanged “on the fly.” First class mail for the town would be thrown off the train, securely locked in a special mail pouch. Almost simultaneously mail from that town would be picked up by a “catcher” which was a specially designed hook fastened near a door of the RPO car. This device was fastened to the mail car and could be swung out at the proper time by a clerk assigned to that responsibility. At non-stop stations a “crane”, on which the “catcher pouch” hung, held the pouch at both the top and the bottom. The “catcher pouch” was a specially constructed pouch which had a strap drawn tightly around the center. The “catcher” would hit the pouch at the center strap, causing it to drape over the “catcher” securely and allowing the clerk in the door to retrieve it.
The “catcher” had to be extended and retracted at exactly the right time or it might hit poles, signals or bridge abutments. This required the undivided attention of one clerk who was also expected to be sorting mail. The clerks always knew approximately where they were by the “feel of the road” with its bumps, curves, hills, switches, sounds and occasional views of landmarks.
One K-Line RPO clerk, some years ago, swung out the “catcher” at Gregory Landing, but did not catch anything. Later he learned that the mail bag had been knocked down by an elephant of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The elephant got his trunk out of the baggage car up ahead of the mail car at just the right moment as they passed the station. There was no report on the elephant’s reaction.
Each RPO car had a mail slot through which mail could be dropped directly into the car by patrons at stations where the train stopped. RPO clerks also sold stamps if patrons came to the car while it was stopped at a station. RPO clerks worked at a fast pace as they traveled - sometimes as fast as 70 miles an hour. They stood on their feet as the train careened around curves, jerking, swaying and bumping along. Theirs was a busy run, hurrying to compete their sorting before the end of the run, throwing out mail at non-stop towns, and receiving mail with the catcher. At stops they received additional mail to be sorted. They kept an eye on the mail slot to be sure any incoming mail was postmarked and routed.
Besides being a strenuous job, it was sometimes dangerous. Just above head height of the clerks was a fixed pipe for workers to grab and steady themselves in case of sudden stops or train accidents. Almost every clerk at some time in his career had the experience of being in a train wreck, some of which were minor and some more serious. The possibility of robbery created a need for protection and, starting in 1921, the government required each clerk to carry a .45 Col revolver. Later a .38 caliber revolver was substituted.
During the 1930s there were three RPO runs originating at Hannibal with terminals at Moberly, Brookfield and Gilmore: (1) Hannibal to Moberly on the Wabash with en route mail to Rensselaer, Huntington, Monroe City, Stoutsville, Goss, Paris, Holliday, Madison, Evansville, and Moberly. (2) Hannibal to Brookfield on the C.B. & Q. with stations at Oakwood, Withers Mills, Palmyra, Woodland, Ely, Monroe City, Hunnewell, Lakenan, Shelbina, Lentner, Clarence, Macon, Bevier, Callao, New Cambria, Bucklin, St. Catherine and Brookfield. (3) Hannibal to Gilmore on the Shortline with en route mail to New London, Center Perry, Frankford, Bowling Green, Cyrene, Edgewood, Eolia, Whiteside, Silex, Briscoe, Davis, Troy, Moscow Mills and Gilmore. Each of the above stations had a local post office.
The RPO vanished from the American scene in 1972. The elimination of railway postal sorting and service was brought about by the discontinuance of the passenger trains which hauled the mail cars. Thus, this efficient and economical service became a thing of the past.