One might have noticed that many of my pictures are framed to look like postage stamps. That’s because when I was six, in 1966, I discovered a big box in the attic. Full of letters. With beautiful postage stamps on them. I instantly became a philatelist (and a historian).
It was only natural, then, that I combine my interest in stamps with my interest in trains. So although I love locomotives and cabooses, my favorite railroad car is the Railway Post Office (RPO). I had never seen one, much less been inside one, until several years ago when I visited the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris CA, about 90 miles up the road from me here in La Mesa. They had Santa Fe RPO 60, built in 1924 by Pullman. Here’s its interior, looking like it did in its heyday with letter cases, sorting racks, and pouches of mail.
The Railway Post Office literally was a traveling post office. They were attached to regularly scheduled passenger trains and under contract to the United States Post Office. Mail was picked up and dropped off at cities and towns along the route, and sorted while the train sped on down the tracks. By the mid-1940s, there were 1,500 RPO routes criss-crossing America with 30,000 men (sorry, women) working in more than 4,000 RPO cars. More than 90% of the nation’s mail was handled in RPO cars.
Mail could be picked up and dropped off even if the train was not scheduled to stop. It would slow down slightly and a man would lean out of the car door with a catcher arm and grab a bag off of a special post at the side of the track. Pity the man who was not strong enough or who missed the bag….
Mail that needed to be dropped off was simply thrown out the car door at a designated spot to be picked up and delivered to the Post Office.
Santa Fe RPO 60 was used to sort and distribute mail between Los Angeles and Kansas City on Santa Fe trains #7 and #8, the “Fast Mail & Express” trains. The average crew numbered 12 men. The USPS discontinued the route in 1967.
Back in those days, it was not unheard of for a letter to be picked up at 6:00 a.m. and delivered by 6:00 p.m. Even letters going from New York to Los Angeles might only take a couple of days. In today’s world, even with all this modern sorting machinery and zip codes, a letter going from New York to Los Angeles and mailed this morning might get there a week from today, with luck.