What only railway clerks knew about the US mail

A while back, I lamented the extreme paucity of smarts lavished in the past on our postal affairs, and a few devoutly patriotic readers have voiced their opinion of my conclusion. They feel it did not come soon enough. This gives me a welcome opportunity to add a few facts about our railroads, which were also lavishly subsidized in the illusion of delivering the United States mail.

It came about, as our republic gained in wisdom and stature, that every railroad operating in the country became an automatic nephew of the postmaster general, and the railway postal system was born, chewing on its silver spoon. This arrangement persisted until highway trucks and flying machines put the choo-choo trains in limbo.

My daddy was an RPC, the elite. As a railway postal clerk, he worked six-and-eight for 42 years on the Bangor & Boston RPO (railway post office), and I grew up in a worldly environment where we never knew where anyplace was, but we could dispatch its mail correctly on the right train. My dad had memorized the distribution of mail for 30,000 Boston addresses, and then he "worked" Maine and the Maritimes on the way back.

It was the rule that in every consist that included a railway post office, the mail car should be next behind the locomotive. Consist is the railroad term for a train, from power to caboose, if freight, and to sleepers if it is not. And every RPO was just what the initials mean: a complete postal unit where any "patron" who cared to walk down to the tracks could enjoy any postal service offered by a land-bound unit, even the big one in New York.

Every clerk-in-charge was thus a postmaster, and it was his duty to keep himself supplied with postage stamps for sale, a copy of the postal regulations, a cancelling stamp, and all else to oblige the public. The mail car even had a slot in the side where letters for mailing could be inserted.

The mail car was seldom used as a post office by the public, but it was ready. Inside the car, where nobody but certified railway postal clerks were permitted, the crew stood at sorting cases and separated the moving mail in transit, using pigeon holes designated for streets and routes, cities, towns, and business firms, for the purpose of having each community's mail ready when the train pulled into that station.

People who started giving the letter carrier on the street a Christmas gift never knew that all he did was walk around; an RPC had sorted his stuff 50 miles back at 80 m.p.h.

As a wee lad, never having been on a train, I already knew that odd-number trains go one way, even-number the other, and that no train in America ever goes north or goes south. My dad worked eastbound to Bangor and then westbound to Boston.

Each crew had a clerk to collect from postboxes on station platforms, and also one to "throw and catch." At towns where the train didn't stop, pouches would be hanging on trackside yardarms, and the clerk would grab it on a hook as the train went by. Sometimes he'd miss and win a demerit mark. And if he erred on his throw, which was just a toss out the speeding car's door, he could either wipe out a greenhouse or make a big splash in a river. Both happened.

Twice, in my student days, I was a temporary railway postal clerk during the Christmas-card flood, and for 10 days it paid welcome wampum that I frittered away on Latin and Geoffrey Chaucer. I did not get to ride in a mail car, but spent the Gallicinilum Watch, 11 to 7, in the transfer office at Portland Union Station. I sorted Prince Edward Island, which has but three separations, King's, Queen's, and Prince's Counties.

As to the subsidy, the railroads still took it for granted. Each railroad got so much a year for hauling an RPO car, entirely a mileage deal and never by weight or volume. A car was 60 feet long; the forward 30 feet were the post office, and the back 30 a baggage car. But there was also a 30-foot car that was divided down the middle.

It was the general practice to put the divided car in the consist, get paid for 60 adequate feet, and then cheat the postal clerks as the railroad used half the car for its baggage. Merrily, the postal service paid for 60s, and the clerks humped around in 30s. Congress picked up the deficits. The hilarity of this deceit was most noticeable at Christmastime. The railways would add plain storage cars to handle Christmas cards, for which the postal service paid, and the railroads would use half of those mail cars for baggage.

The Grand Trunk Line, built to bring Canada's wheat to ships at Portland, ran from Portland, Maine, to Island Pond, Vt., and then became Canadian into Montreal. It had one passen- ger train each way daily, and was Canadian property all the way. But between Portland and Island Pond it was crewed by US citizens. It had a mail car.

When the last RPO was retired, the postal service issued a commemorative stamp. It showed an RPO car that had operated between New York City and Washington, D.C. That was the Montreal to Washington route, operated by the Canadian Pacific, which Winston Churchill took to Montreal the evening after his big day with the joint Congress in Washington. Churchill asked the steward, "Are we still in the United States?"

"No, sir. We're in Vermont. White River Junction is next."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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