Train Wrecks

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Railway Post Office (RPO) clerks processed mail on moving train cars. These cars often turned into death traps after a wreck, filled with scalding water from steam engines or set ablaze when oil lamps and wood stoves tipped over or exploded on impact.

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From the beginning of the Railway Mail Service in America, the clerks who rode with the mail served under conditions that could be life-threatening. The worst danger was from train wrecks. In order to help protect passengers in the train, mail cars were placed between the locomotive and the passenger cars. As a result, Railway Mail Service clerks often bore the major impact from collisions or explosions.

Train wrecks were an all-too-common threat to the lives of Railway Mail Service clerks. In the decade from 1890 to 1900, there were over 6,000 accidents involving trains equipped with mail cars or compartments. Over eighty mail clerks were killed in those accidents and 2,072 were injured.

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Wreckage of two trains with people looking on.

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Wreckage of two trains

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Wreckage of two trains destroyed in a head-on collision.

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People standing among wreckage of train and collapsed bridge structure.

The largest contributing factor to these high mortality rates was the growing number of trains in service B many of which were running at faster speeds. As the service grew, it extended distribution through more territory and speed became an increasingly important factor. Also, beginning in the 1890s, railway mail trains began to be heavily used at night, with a considerable number of exchanges made from the moving trains.

There were numerous dangers present for railway mail clerks. Items within the mail car itself could rip loose in a wreck, striking or trapping a clerk inside the car. Gallons of scalding water could pour into the railway post office car from a jolted steam driven engine. Inside the mail car itself oil burning lamps and wood burning stoves proved to be extremely hazardous. Tipped over in an accident, or even a sudden stop, there could be very little in a mail-filled wooden mail car which would impede the progress of the flames.

Wooden cars were commonly used in railway service during this period. These cars were especially susceptible to destruction by fire and impact. Even after the railway companies began to purchase metal cars, they found it financially advantageous to continue using the wooden cars for several more years.