A Postal Revolution and a Political Upheaval

Railway Mail

Refer to caption
This illustration shows an early test case for Railway Mail Service, the Hannibal & St. Joseph RR car, met by a steamer ready to take mail on down the river.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the fastest way to distribute mail across the country was via railroads. When Postmaster General Blair entered office in 1861, the system in place was simple. Mail was organized for distribution by postal clerks and then piled by bags into trains and then off them again for redistribution multiple times before finally making it to its destination.(1) George B. Armstrong, a Chicago postal executive, believed that other options were available.

After seeing a new system established in Canada in 1859, which used railway post offices—in effect, fully functioning post offices situated in a train car, where postal clerks sorted mail while the train was in motion—and also looking at Britain and past efforts in America with the system, Armstrong pushed heavily for a railway mail system.(2) The railway mail system was a much faster means of delivering mail, as the stops along the way to different distributing centers were eliminated; as a result, the time it took for a letter to get to its destination was cut in half. Furthermore, the railroad in the U.S. was growing exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century and the Post Office Department could reap many benefits from a railway mail system as the railroad continued to follow the country’s expansion westward.

Blair, who was aware of the inefficiencies in mail transport, heeded Armstrong’s request and moved forward with plans to begin a railway mail service. He wrote to presidents of railroad companies asking for the use of their rails along with their cooperation and patience. He assured them of pay in exchange for the Post Office Department’s use of the railroads, and reminded them that, although the sum of the pay might be much lower than they would receive from private companies, by working with the Post Office to deliver the mails, they would be performing an immense public service. In a letter to Charles E. Smith, president of the Reading Railroad company in Philadelphia, Blair made his point firmly regarding not just the necessity of Smith’s cooperation, but also the unperceived benefits that it would hold for Smith’s company:

If you say that the allowance is inadequate, and that it is less than you receive from corporations in private parties for similar service, I can only answer that no discretion is left to me; and that, however strong your claims, I must ask you to waive them, and make some sacrifice, if need be, to the public good. But you can suffer no actual loss, as you will continue to receive pay as would from the contractors for the usual number of cars, and you are only asked to take one additional car for this Department at the legal rates, which, though lower than you desire, it seems to me, will still be as much gained without adding to some expenses.(3)

As Blair stated, despite the lower rates for the postal car, the railroad company, because it would simply be adding an extra car to the already existing cars, would not lose any money from the transaction. By taking part in the new railway mail venture, the company would also gain the image of a future-oriented organization, which could subsequently help its business.

After putting forth much effort to move forward with the system, Blair allowed Armstrong to complete a test run of the service. The first test run with a fully functioning mail car—a car designed specifically for sorting mail—ran from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa on August 28, 1864.(4) The run was a success, immediately leading to an extension of the railway mail system. With a fully functioning Railway Mail System in effect, the time it took letters to travel across the country was cut down drastically. The New York Times reported, “The great advantage of this system is that correspondents can mail their letters at the last moment, and even when the car may be moving off.”(5) The railway mail system was an exceptionally efficient system that saved time and energy; it remained the dominant form of mail transportation until after World War II when railroad companies began to cut back on their lines. Railway mail was, simply put, a revolutionary measure for the Post Office Department, and something that would not have been put into effect without the work of Postmaster General Blair.

1) Moroney, 25.
2) Smith, 107.
3) Montgomery Blair, letter to Charles E. Smith, May 27, 1864, National Archives.
4) Smith, 107.
5) “A Railway Post Office,” New York Times, September 4, 1864.