Teaching Constant Motion: The Job of Railway Post Office Clerks with Primary Sources

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Teaching Constant Motion: The Job of Railway Post Office Clerks with Primary Sources NEW
Teaching Resource Sections: History of the RPO Love this Job
      Prep, Schemes & Exams  Tools of the Trade Lingo
      Camaraderie & Good Times Final Run Timeline
      LOC Resources Printable PDF booklet.  


History of the Railway Post Office

When thinking of mail trains, we may imagine black and white film showing gun toting bandits or gnarled piles of wreckage. These images reflect early days. This project studies mail by rail in the mid-1900s, a time of growth and change. Long before cell phones, texts and email the U.S. Mail connected the nation.

In the 1800s, the United States Post Office realized the potential of using the railroad to not only transportteaching rpo mail, but also sort it along the route. Mailbags once untouched for days, were now opened and sorted as the train sped towards its destination. This idea proved so successful that an Act of Congress on July 7, 1838, declared all railroads postal routes. By the 1900s, railroads were an essential tool for postal service success. The first railroad cars used by the postal service were wooden and equipped only to sort and distribute letter mail. These cars could be dangerous because they were vulnerable to fire from wood stoves and oil lamps or total destruction upon impact from jumping the tracks or a collision. As railroads began to push west, schedules became increasingly important to reach every destination. Trains traveled at higher speeds and the number of casualties began to rise. The RPO had more than 6,000 accidents between 1890-1900, killing over 80 mail clerks and injuring 2,072.

teaching rpo
Accidents and unsafe cars were not the only concerns of a railway post office clerk. In theteaching rpo 1920s, train robberies increased as criminals realized mail trains often carried large amounts of money or gold. This was the reason Railway Post Office clerks were required to carry .38 caliber pistols. When exchanging mail, trains slowed down so clerks could transfer mail by hand, which was inefficient and dangerous. This system was replaced by a mail crane, a simple steel hook and crane. Mailbags were hung from the crane and attached at the bottom with the hook. As the train sped by, a mail clerk would raise the train's catcher arm to grab the mailbag. "Mail-on-the-fly", was not easy to master. Clerks had to carefully pay attention and raise the catcher arm from the train at the precise moment. If raised late, the exchange was missed and the clerk received demerits. Mail cranes could be on either side of the train and numerous cranes within seconds of each other. The mail catch 

teach rpoRailway Post Office clerks were considered the elite of the postal service's employees. The exhausting and dangerous job required passing challenging entrance exams. A passing score on the civil service exam was 97% or higher, requiring a clerk to sort 600 pieces of mail an hour. This was not a test only taken once, RPO clerks were tested over and over to ensure their skills remained sharp. The memorization abilities clerks possessed were remarkable. A single route was not the extent of testing, multiple routes for individual home states had to be learned, plus the routes of any other worked states. If a clerk was a substitute, which was how most started, he had to know countless routes with staggering numbers of towns with post offices that received mail. Clerks finally had to know where connecting trains met, so mail going either north/south or east/west could be delivered to the correct train. This intense, high pressure work environment elicited strong relationships and interactions.was only half of the process, the clerk also had to throw that destinations sorted mail from the train. If the bag was not thrown far enough, a "snowstorm" could occur, meaning the mailbag was ripped under the train mail scattered. 

Railway Post Office clerks developed a strong sense of camaraderie. No clerk rested until all work wasteaching rpo completed and every piece of mail was sorted. It was a "one for all and all for one" atmosphere in which each took pride in his job and the responsibility of ensuring the mail was delivered. For 140 years the Railway Post Office carried the mail to be delivered across America. As highways were built and air travel increased, the U.S. Post Office began to fade out mail trains. By 1965, only 190 trains carried mail, by 1970, no first class mail was carried on the railroad. The last Railway Post Office, which operated between New York and Washington, D.C., made a final run on June 30, 1977.
Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Mail by Rail, accessed 6.5.12