1941 White Highway Post Office bus
President Roosevelt deposits a letter in the first Highway Post Office Bus.
Clerk loads mailbags into a Highway Post Office bus.
A clerk sorts mail on board the bus.
These brightly colored red, white and blue buses were common sights on American highways in the 1950s and 1960s. Clerks inside
were hard at work sorting mail as the buses traveled between towns across the country. The system of sorting mail while in
transit grew out of the Railway Mail Service, which Highway Post Office Service was created to replace. Buses helped fill the
transportation void left by declining railroad traffic.
The first Highway Post Office bus was built by the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio. On February 10,
1941, this vehicle inaugurated service between Washington, D.C., and Harrisonburg, Virginia, a distance of 149 miles.
This bus is now part of the National Postal Museum collection. After the bus was decommissioned in the 1960s, a postal
worker hid it in a succession of Post Office Department garages to keep it from being discarded as surplus. It was
finally "discovered" and sold by the government. In 1961, it was purchased by the members of the United Federation of
Postal Clerks (which later became the American Postal Workers Union), who donated it to the Smithsonian Institution and
agreed to underwrite the cost of restoring the bus to its proper condition. The bus is currently on loan to the Crawford
Museum of Transportation and Industry, Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio.
The interiors of Highway Post Offices were largely indistinguishable from the Railway Post Offices they replaced. On the left side
were the letter cases and the letter distributing table. On the right side of the bus was the paper distributing table and holders
for mail sacks. Windows were barred on the outside in addition to being screened on the inside to provide security. Electric
ceiling lights provided illumination for the clerks. The rear section of the bus had an average of 640 cubic feet of space which
could hold an average of 150 mail sacks.
The expansion of the Highway Post Office system was postponed during World War II. A second route was not established until 1946.
For roughly the next decade, as railway mail service shrank, highway mail service grew. In the period from 1960-1963 the railway
mail service was replacing an average of 20 trains a month. Highway Post Office routes were organized on round trips which
averaged about 150 miles each way. There was a very good reason for this, as the bus generally could only hold enough gas for
about one 150 mile trip, and fuel stops meant losing valuable time. Furthermore, if a trip was too long, garages to service the
vehicles had to be set up at both ends of the trip, doubling that cost.
Highway mail routes generally served an average of 25 post offices directly and many others indirectly through Star
Route and railway mail connections. The end of the Highway Post Office system was signaled by a major reorganization
within the Post Office Departmentthe adoption of the sectional center concept. Under this reorganization, mail
handling was divided into sections of the country. Mail was sent to a central location, where it was processed by
high-speed sorting machines. On June 30, 1974, 33 years after the first experimental trip, the last Highway Post
Office made its final run over the Cincinnati-Cleveland, Ohio route. Ironically, although Highway Post Offices were
introduced to replace railway mail trains, Railway Mail Service outlasted Highway Post Office Service by three
Interior of the 1941 White Highway Post Office Bus
Clerks working aboard the 1941 White Highway Post Office bus.