The Halifax disaster, seen from a railway post office

Now comes a good letter from Norman Yates, who writes to share some memories of the RMS. I refer to the Railway Mail Service and Mr. Yates was a railway postal clerk in his younger days out of San Francisco eastbound. My dad was also an RPC on the Bangor & Boston RPO for 42 years, RPO being Railway Post Office and every train had one right behind the locomotive.

This letter from Reader Yates prompts today's tale from long ago, when postal clerks believed absolutely that if you spent three cents to post a letter you should get your money's worth in quick and reliable service. A railroad mail car actually was a rolling post office with its own cancellation stamp and was designated by its terminal stations.

My dad's train was the crack Maritime Express, Boston to Halifax and return, but he didn't go the whole route; he'd "wind up" in Bangor and come back to Boston on tomorrow's westbound.

Eastbound, my dad sorted mail for Maine, the Maritime Provinces, and Quebec. Westbound he was Boston City clerk. His train would hit well over l00 m.p.h on the straight iron up Maine's Sebasticook River Valley, and was the fastest over-the-route train in North America, making but a few scheduled stops.

I recite details because they are important to our story. Dad's routine was to board his mail car at North Station in Boston and start work by setting up his letter-sorting case, laying out his few tools, and greeting the other "boys" as they arrived.

At the appointed time a shifter would take the mail car over to the Charlestown yards, where what trainworkers call a "consist" would be coupled together. Shortly before departure time the whole train would be backed into North Station, ready to go and awaiting the conductor's, "Board!" Just before the conductor called that, the last-minute letter pouches would arrive from the Boston post office.

Some two hours later my dad would leave the train at Bangor to sleep in a postal clerks' ram-pasture, and arise to work his way back to Boston. I think my father was never in Halifax, but he sorted their mail.

Our story has to do with his eastbound trip on Dec. 6, 1917. The train had yelped up the Sebasticook River Valley at its usual speed and was about to hit the siding switch just before Newport. Mail cars didn't have observation windows, but clerks could tell where they were by the sound of the wheels on the track.

Newport was a catch-and-throw town for Dad's train, meaning that they didn't stop, but at high speed in passing through they hove a pouch out the door and with a hook caught an incoming pouch off a yardarm. This was a give-and-take maneuver better seen than described, usually performed by an agile clerk who could duck when the incoming pouch slammed inside the car and who could simultaneously kick a field goal into the night.

But on Dec. 6, 1917, none of this took place.

Just before the Newport sidetrack switch shanty, the engineer got a red board, and deftly he braked the train and came to a stop by the Newport railroad station, where the night telegrapher handed up a dispatcher's change of orders. My dad seemed to think it was about 2 a.m., on the seventh. The switchman fixed the track, and the long train backed and then ran ahead to be off the main iron.

Nobody aboard the train had any notion about why the train had been sidetracked.

On the Newport siding that morning, my dad cleaned up his sorting table, spread out some empty mail bags to make a bed, and napped. He figured they were on the siding about an hour when an unscheduled train swooshed by eastbound on the main line, doing well over 100 m.p.h, with its whistle cord tied down. This roused him and he readjusted his sacks and went back to sleep.

Then, at five-minute intervals, five other trains howled by in the night, whistles screeching. There was no way of knowing what was afoot, but the postal clerks presumed their train had been taken off the main iron to give the right of way to something that ran in six sections. And they were right, except that they didn't find out until daylight when their train got orders to proceed and arrived in Bangor at breakfast time.

On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, two vessels had collided in Halifax Harbour. One was heavily loaded with war munitions. There was a fire and a tremendous explosion. A good part of Halifax was reduced to rubble, and there were hundreds of casualties. That evening, my dad and his fellow RPC crew had left Boston before news arrived of the explosion. The Red Cross and Salvation Army responded at once, and my dad's train was sidetracked at Newport to give right of way to the hospital mercy train that ran in six sections with doctors, nurses, aides, supplies, food, clothing, and all else that might be needed in Halifax.

Dad said the postal clerks were having breakfast at the Bangor House postal clerks' annex when they heard about this, and one of them said, "You know, I forgot to throw and catch Newport! Remind me to take care of that westbound."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.