Start of Railway Mail Service 

1988 21¢ Transportation Series: Railroad MailCar, 1920s
US #2265 pictures a railroad mail car.

On August 28, 1864, the US Post Office Department created the Railway Mail Service.  It revolutionized mail delivery for a century.

In 1838 Congress approved an act designating all United States railroad routes as postal routes.  A significant improvement over the traditional method of delivering mail by horse-drawn coaches, the railway service signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another.

For nearly 30 years, trains were used to transport mail between post offices.  The mailbags were loaded onto the trains and delivered to the post office where they were sorted.  However, while some of the mail was delivered, many letters were returned to the bags and placed back on the trains to be sorted later.  This inefficiency led American postal officials to consider other options.

1913 3¢ Parcel Post Stamp
US #Q3 pictures a railway postal clerk preparing to pick up and drop off mail at a station.

Soon the idea emerged to have mail clerks on the trains to sort the mail as it traveled between towns.  In 1862, the idea was briefly tested on the Hannibal and St. Joseph line in Missouri.  Then two years later, Chicago’s assistant postmaster George B. Armstrong pushed for the widespread used of a railway post office and succeeded.  The first mail car, a renovated baggage car, ran on the Chicago and North Western Railroad line between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa, on August 28, 1864.

1913 5¢ Parcel Post Stamp
US #Q5 pictures a mail train along with the crane holding mail to be picked up.

Clerks aboard the train sorted mail not just for routes along the line, but also for those beyond the end of the line.  This new railway mail service proved a great success.  More mail cars were added to travel between New York and Washington, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as between Chicago and Burlington, Illinois, and Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois.

1993 29¢ National Postal Museum stamps
US #2779-82 pictures US mail milestones, including a railway mail car.

These trains didn’t always stop at every station, but those smaller stations still had mail.  Early on, the trains had to slow down so the clerks could grab the mailbags, which was both inefficient and dangerous.  Eventually, they developed mail cranes.  Mailbags were hung on a crane at stations that were too small for the train to stop.  The clerk extended a bar that grabbed the bag as the train passed going between 30 and 70 miles per hour.

1994 29¢ Locomotives: Hudson's General stamp
US #2843Hudson’s General carried an East Division Railway Post Office.

By 1867, there were 18 railway mail routes that crossed over 4,435 miles of track with 160 clerks hard at work.  They were so efficient that dozens of clerks at stationary post offices were fired or moved to other jobs because they were no longer needed to sort the mail.  The clerks took great pride in their work and could sort up to 600 pieces of mail an hour, and up until the mid-1900’s, Railway Mail Service dominated the movement of the mail.

1988 21¢ Railroad MailCar Fleetwood First Day Cover
US #2265 – Fleetwood First Day Cover

However, as airplanes and highways expanded and improved, the need for railway mail began to decline.  Postal officials also began to move toward mechanical processing.  On June 30, 1977, the very last railway mail car ended its final run when it pulled into Washington’s Union Station.

Find out more about the Railway Mail Service here.

FREE printable This Day in History album pages
Download a PDF of today’s article.
Get a binder or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
[Total: 123 Average: 4.9]

Share this article

3 responses to "Start of Railway Mail Service "

3 thoughts on “Start of Railway Mail Service ”

  1. I have and had postmarked items, stamped when placed
    in the system and on arrival at destination, that show
    efficient service around 1900 that isn’t matched today.
    If air shipping of mail, air, express and priority mail, almost
    125 years later, can’t match the RPO service we’re very stupid.
    Our present postmaster general, small caps on purpose, has
    been a classic example of incompetence.

  2. I still think that Amtrak should be allowed to carry some mail, especially on many of those high traffic corridors, or long trains out of Chicago to distant snores. Our country needs an update to our passenger rail system.


Leave a Comment

Love history?

Discover events in American history – plus the stamps that make them come alive.

Subscribe to get This Day in History stories straight to your inbox every day!