Racing across this vast nation, Railway Postal Clerks sorted mail aboard specially retrofitted train cars. The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed and distributed for more than a century.
Stepping aboard a Railway Post Office (RPO) car offers a fascinating portrait of the Postal Service. For this reason, Historic Rail Park and Train Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky volunteers were thrilled to acquire an RPO for its collection.
“This is such a great representation of the postal story, particularly as the railroad and Post Office were partners in a very dynamic and fascinating way,” said Dorian Walker, volunteer and museum co-founder. “We have visitors from all over the world and there’s just a fascination about the RPO.
“I guess you think about the mail and think about it today with the Internet,” she said. “The mail is still important but people realize their parents’ generation and their grandparents’ generation relied totally on the mail. You go back in time, especially before television, and this rich story about how you could have mail delivered in the same day between cities is fascinating.”
Railway mail service began in 1832, but grew slowly until the Civil War.
In 1862, mail previously untouched in bags on train floors began to be processed as the train sped toward its destination. This new method of sorting the mail was developed just when railroads began to crisscross the nation on a regular basis.
The service grew as railroads came to dominate America from the end of the 19th century through World War II.
Railway Postal Clerks used a system of cranes to exchange mail at stations without stopping. In the late-50s, I remember my father showing me where to look so that I could see the swap.
As the train approached, a clerk prepared the catcher arm which would then snatch the incoming mailbag. The same clerk then tossed out the outgoing mailbag for the local Post Office.
After learning how it worked, I often watched for it. Living next to the railroad in Greenwich, Ohio, until I was 8-years-old, I also remember one time when the arm missed the village’s mail and it went flying all over the railroad track. I watched as a local postal employee scrambled to gather the scattered letters.
The RPO was strategically placed next to the engine, usually on passenger trains, and built with reinforced steel for good reason – accidents and train robberies. Without warning, the clerks could find themselves the victims of train wrecks.
“In the heyday of rail service, when every community in American had a railway line and large cities had many trains coming and going, there were going to be accidents,” Walker said.
And, tempted by the small fortunes carried on mail cars, thieves tried to make quick fortunes by robbing trains.
It took nearly two years to restore the RPO according to Walker. Volunteers worked non-stop restoring everything from the light fixtures and wood sash windows to vertical mail bins and metal workstations. The RPO also was given a fresh new coat of paint – L&N Blue.
The RPO was officially opened to the public in October in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of L&N passenger service between Louisville and Nashville.
The park and museum opened three years ago and was developed around a 1927 passenger depot. More than 14 interactive exhibits — each telling a different story — are featured.
Every hour on the hour a railroad conductor welcomes guests “all aboard” and tells the story from a hands-on point of view. “Our earliest car is from 1911; our latest car is from 1953,” said Walker.
The park and museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. From November through April the attraction is closed on Monday; May through October, Monday hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The museum is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve (1/2 day), Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve (1/2 day), New Year’s Day and Easter.
The Train Museum is fully accessible to persons with disabilities. The Railpark section has limited accessibility due to factors such as narrow hallways and door openings.