Oral Histories: W

Railway Post Office Clerks

Wallace Waldman

Mr. Wally Waldman was a substitute clerk for the Railway Mail Service, running from Chicago to Omaha and Marion, Iowa. As a regular, he worked mainly between Chicago and Memphis, usually as a distribution clerk. Mr. Waldman worked on the trains until the RMS closed.

Wallace Waldman Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and affiliation with the Railway Mail Service?

Wally Waldman: Wallace Waldman and I was a railway postal clerk, distribution clerk on the trains.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a regular or a sub?

Wally Waldman: I was a substitute.

INTERVIEWER: What rail line did you work on and which locations did you travel between?

Wally Waldman: Mainly I worked between Chicago and Memphis and from Chicago-Memphis most of the runs were through Carbondale, Illinois, it’s near where I live. Most of my runs were from Chicago and Carbondale. I run most ways out of Carbondale and out Chicago. And then as a sub I also had to make runs – I first started out in Marion, Iowa and ran to Omaha, Nebraska from Marion and to Chicago then back to Marion.

INTERVIEWER: How long did you serve as a Railway Post Office clerk?

Wally Waldman: Approximately seven years.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know which years those were?

Wally Waldman: That would have been from ‘62 to ‘69.

INTERVIEWER: What made you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?

Wally Waldman: I guess the main influence was my father did it and I had two uncles doing it and so I just kind of followed in line.

INTERVIEWER: Was this something that you always felt like you should do or it was just interesting to you when you were growing up?

Wally Waldman: Well, you know, when you’re young you’re not sure what you want to do but I did that because it was a good job, good steady work where you were going to get your pay and have good benefits.

INTERVIEWER: I know that you said you were a distribution clerk, what types of jobs did you do as a distribution clerk?

Wally Waldman: What jobs did I do? Well, if you were working letters, you worked the letters in the pigeonholes, the cases and then also you work on the pouch rack, you dumped the pouches and put them in the appropriate pouches and if you work in newspapers, you worked the newspaper sacks and distributed them into their proper destination.

INTERVIEWER: For any one of your jobs, could you describe a typical day on the railcar, starting from when you first went in to work?

Wally Waldman: Well, you start your day, you would go into the railcar and change into your work clothes and then you would get your supplies out. If you’re working letter case, you had to put your headers in. If you’re working pouch rack, you had to hang your pouch rack and label it and then mail started coming in and then whichever you were doing, if pouches, you had to dump the pouches and work them into the pouches or give it to letter clerk for him to work. If you’re working letters, you worked the letters and when you come to stops you had to have the mail out and throw it into the pouches ready for dispatch at that destination.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have any layovers at all?

Wally Waldman: Yes, you would layover, I would say like I ran out on Carbondale, Illinois, you get to Chicago then you layover that day and then you come back the next night. You ran through the night most of the time so you would layover on one end or the other, you know, both ends wherever you stopped.

INTERVIEWER: Was there any one job that you liked doing the most?

Wally Waldman: Well, probably working the letters, that was a little bit easier than handling the sacks or pouches.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever disliked in your position as a railway mail clerk and this can be anything from a small complaint to something that you just could not stand?

Wally Waldman: Well, not really, you know, there were some better than others but nothing that I really, really disliked.

INTERVIEWER: What type of railcars did you work on?

Wally Waldman: What type of railcars? Well, there was an RPO car; it was set up for working mail. They had different lengths. Some of them, you know, if it wasn’t real far you had a 30-foot car and then some of them were 60-foot cars and one train I ran on that had two 60-foot cars in it. I guess I’m not sure how much you want on that.

INTERVIEWER: No, you answered that. When you worked on the railways, do you remember what your starting salary was?

Wally Waldman: I think I started out at $2.12.

INTERVIEWER: When you ended your time on the railway, do you remember what the ending salary was?

Wally Waldman: No, I sure don’t. I can’t remember what that was. Okay, there were different levels of pay in the post office department. If you were in a permanent side, you were level four; then the people on the trains were level five so you usually made about 10-15 cents more than the people in the stationary unit.

INTERVIEWER: From what you do remember about your pay, do you believe that it was fair for the amount of work that you had to do and if you could just explain why or why not?

Wally Waldman: Well, it was probably about average pay then. It seemed like I did good with it. I had a couple of children and built a new house and everything, you know, so I think it was a good living. The only problem when you were subbing a little bit, you didn’t get any overtime, so it was straight pay no matter how many hours you worked. So the one time I worked like, in two weeks, I worked like 158 hours and that was just straight pay. It was the only problem.

INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on runs?

Wally Waldman: Well, you would carry, well your change of clothes and also your lunch and then you would have your supplies for whatever case you were working. If it was like letter case, you had your headers or if you had labels you had to have them prepared for the pouch rack and put them in the label holder for each pouch and then you would have your [indiscernible] if you work in registers, or if you’re clerk-in-charge you have a gun and otherwise you would have like your ring knife and your slips in thumb stall and just your regular supplies I guess.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the longest trip you ever worked?

Wally Waldman: Well, the longest I ran was from like Chicago to Memphis because that’s approximately 500 miles. You would go to work like about six in the morning and then you’d get in to Memphis around five in the afternoon.

INTERVIEWER: While you were working as a Railway Post Office clerk, did you have a family?

Wally Waldman: When I first started I didn’t but then two years after I started, I had a family.

INTERVIEWER: How did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?

Wally Waldman: Well, that was a little problem, you know, if you leave for say – if you leave like one night, you’ll be on the next day and not get home until the following morning. The one thing at least I had learned, on the one end like at Carbondale, I lived close enough there; for my layover, there I would be home. And the thing is too, if you’re a regular clerk, you would make three round trips; you worked six days then you would be off eight so you’d be gone like three days out of two weeks.

INTERVIEWER: How did your family cope while you were away on long trips? What are some of the things they did to keep busy?

Wally Waldman: Well, like I said, I wasn’t married then. When I got married I had a couple of small children and so that pretty well kept them occupied.

INTERVIEWER: What was their attitude towards your job?

Wally Waldman: Well, it was pretty good because they didn’t like me being gone, you know, but then it was a regular paycheck and had a pretty good living.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railroad?

Wally Waldman: Just the people I worked with, I still have a lot of the friends and everybody worked together so good. It was really a pleasure working with the people and everybody worked hard together. I think that’s what makes the job liked so much because of the people that you worked with. Everybody seemed to get along great.

INTERVIEWER: Do you still keep in touch with any of the former clerks?

Wally Waldman: Yeah, there are a couple of them. I think I’m about the youngest one left as far as I know around so there’s still a few of them around because there are couple of them live near where I do. There are about three or four of them I knew and a couple of others, 25 to 30 miles away. We have a little reunion every year in our area, a get-together and see some of the people you ran with.

INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything either for your safety or for the position?

Wally Waldman: Well, they didn’t offer too much as far as safety but they supplied you with all your supplies, your labels and stamps and everything.  You have a stamp to stamp each label or slip, your name, and date and train you were on and they supplied you with all that and your twine and ring knife and thumb stall that was all supplied by the post office.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever experience a dangerous or bad situation while on the railway?

Wally Waldman: Oh, not real bad, I saw a train derailment but not that that we were on. And one time I was running on that train from Chicago to St. Louis and we were usually right behind the engine and for some reason we were on the end of the train, we were going through the country side and we started slowing down and we looked and it come uncoupled, the train left us sitting out there in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t really in no danger but just kind of an experience, you know, got left out there in the middle of the country.

INTERVIEWER: What happened with that?

Wally Waldman: Well, some kind of coupling came loose on the train, you know, and they didn’t realize it until they get to the next town. Then they had to back up and get us, you know, so the danger of the train going off rails, you know, if something happens -- isn’t too much but it was just kind of a rare experience.

INTERVIEWER: Were you ever on trains that hit cars, trying to cross the tracks and beating the train?

Wally Waldman: Yes, I did a couple of times. And one time when I was working out in Iowa running from Marion to Omaha, there was an Indian reservation down the line and they said they would walk on the tracks and one time we hit an Indian on the track and so we came to a stop, you know, as soon you could and, you know, killed an Indian. I kind of remember that.

INTERVIEWER: Were there times where there was a robbery on the train or a stowaway or even perhaps a fire?

Wally Waldman: Nothing that I was on. When I started, you know, a little later, pretty well the stuff of train robberies and that were pretty well over by then. But I never had anything real, anything like that happened.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear any stories from other clerks who may have experienced a dangerous or bad situation?

Wally Waldman: Well, yes. I ran with this one clerk and he was in an accident. They went down into a river and he said that he was up in a corner of the mail car and that was the only place where there was air until he got rescued. He said that was a pretty scary experience.

INTERVIEWER: How did he then get into the accident in the first place? Did the train derail and then --

Wally Waldman: Yes, derailed where there was river and the mail car and several other cars rolled down into the river.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember hearing any other stories of accidents and this can be even before your time?

Wally Waldman: Well, no, I never heard anybody talk about any other being [indiscernible]

INTERVIEWER: What about your father and your uncles, did they ever experience any accidents?

Wally Waldman: No, I don’t think. My father did it for almost 42 years.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination as a Railway Post Office clerk?

Wally Waldman: No, sure didn’t.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear any stories from other clerks who did experience racial discrimination?

Wally Waldman: No, never heard any problems.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think there weren’t any problems?

Wally Waldman: Well, I think that everybody, I say everybody really worked good together and actually as far as racial we had very few colored people on the train.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organization such as a union or a club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?

Wally Waldman:  Yeah, we had a union.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of the things that you did with the union?

Wally Waldman: Well, there were your like bidding rights and your work assignments and we had a representative for each line. Like for instance Memphis, we had one representative that went and bargained with the people about the jobs and the times. When you needed more help than you thought, or you thought one job need to be changed or something, well, he went and bargained with them on that. It went pretty good too; there was never no big problem with that and our wages or with all the rest of the postal people so they pretty well decided that and you just -- whatever you got, you took.

INTERVIEWER: Were you an active member with the union?

Wally Waldman: Not really, no.

INTERVIEWER: Were you ever featured in any type of publication for the union?

Wally Waldman: No.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position, anything from a serious change to some sort of fickle things?

Wally Waldman: No, I don’t think so. I don’t know really much could have been changed the way it was done.

INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a Railway Post Office clerk?

Wally Waldman: Well, most of it, it’s about the people you worked with. Everyone worked real great. And also the time off, you worked a lot when you’re working but then you had a lot of time off.

INTERVIEWER: What was a normal schedule for you?

Wally Waldman: Well, like I say, being a substitute it wasn’t really normal because you worked when somebody took a vacation, they will let you know when you had to work with the letter and then if its an emergency sick they would call you and you had to go to work with that so there was no real normal schedule with a sub, you were on call all the times and didn’t know when or where you would be working.

INTERVIEWER: For the last question, is there any other information that you would like to share with researchers about your experience or position with the Railway Post Office? This can be anything from interesting things or sights that you saw on the road or funny stories that you might have.

Wally Waldman: Oh, I can’t really think of anything out of the ordinary. Sorry, I can’t help too much on that.

INTERVIEWER: Did you guys every played pranks on one another?

Wally Waldman: Yeah, there were always a few guys that played pranks and things. If you were meeting a train like you’d put mail off train going the other way, opposite of what you’re going, if you had some mail that you carried by sometimes they'd put some things there, pranks in there. One time, I experienced – when a guy put a snake in a pouch and the guy in our train then dumped it and there was a snake that came out of it, you know, so there were some kinds of little pranksters that you have.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember anything else that you guys did to one another?

Wally Waldman: No, not really.

INTERVIEWER: What where some of the interesting things that you may have seen in the mail?

Wally Waldman: Well, back then they did a lot of things differently, they shipped chickens and all kinds of things by mail then, you know, that’s how most rural people got service but as far as really unusual I can’t really think of anything on that either.

INTERVIEWER: Did you see any interesting sights while on the road even during your layovers?

Wally Waldman: Well, not too much. On the train you were working so you don’t get to see too much and when you’re in a layover about all you did there was slept and ate and went back to work. And I ran from Chicago to Carbondale most of the time so I’m pretty familiar with both those places.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else that you would like to say about the Railway Post Office, any memories that stand out to you?

Wally Waldman: No. Like I say, it's that it was a -- I really liked the job and I’m afraid I don’t have too much to say on that either.

INTERVIEWER: And then just out of curiosity, how old were you when your father was a Railway Post Office clerk?

Wally Waldman: From I think – right from about 19 when I started and he retired a couple of years after I worked so probably from about 19 to 24.

INTERVIEWER: How much do you remember about him being a Railway Post Office clerk?

Wally Waldman: Well, I remember I ran with him a few times with a lot of different crews. He was the, well, the boss. They called him clerk-in-charge. So I had some pretty fond memories running with him because looking through some stuff and you see where we were together and stuff on the train. That was really pretty neat.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run with your uncles?

Wally Waldman: One, I did. The other one had retired before I started but I ran with the other uncle. I just ran with him about once or twice and he retired too.

INTERVIEWER: You’re probably the only person that I’ve come across who actually ran with their father or their family member. Was that an interesting time for you?

Wally Waldman: Yes, it was. It was really a nice time, I really enjoyed it. I wish it would have stayed on. INTERVIEWER: Did he ever show any type of favoritism since he was clerk-in-charge?

Wally Waldman: No, I don’t think so. I caught a little bit of slack from some of the other guys working. The first time I ran with him, I was helping a guy in the paper case and this guy he was kind of, you know, joke around too but I didn’t know at that time, he said, “Now, just because your dad is the boss, you don’t get to take it easy. You got to work and stuff” and that, you know, at that time when he said it I kind of said, whoa, but then when I got to know him I know he was kind of a joking guy and that I found that that the person who said it, it kind of upset me a little bit.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything that you would like to say about your father or your uncle as an RPO clerk for this recording?

Wally Waldman: Well, my father was really a hard worker and he would – your boss would work right with you, he kept the records and stuff and that but he would -- the other clerks said too that he hated to tell somebody kind of to do something. He’d almost rather do it himself than tell somebody else if they were doing it wrong. He’d rather just correct it than tell them what to do, so everybody liked him and talked about him real good so that made me feel good too.

Leroy Ward

Mr. Leroy Ward joined the RMS as a sub in 1951, travelling from Indianapolis to Cleveland, St. Louis, and Chicago. When he became a regular clerk, he ran between Chicago and Memphis. Mr. Ward worked on the trains until the RMS closed, and went on to work in the Highway Post Office out of Carbondale, Illinois.

Leroy Ward Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and your affiliation with the Railway Mail Service?

Leroy Ward: I’m Leroy Ward. I ended up my career on the Chicago and Memphis RPO.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a sub or a regular?

Leroy Ward:  I was a regular. 

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever work as a sub?

Leroy Ward: Yes. Uh-huh.

INTERVIEWER: I know earlier that you mentioned one of the rail lines that you ran on. Were there other lines that you worked on?

Leroy Ward: Well, as I was subbing, quite a few. When I first started subbing I worked out of the Indianapolis terminal out in Indianapolis and I worked the Cleveland-St. Louis, which ran from Indianapolis to Cleveland back to St. Louis then back to Indianapolis and Chicago and Peoria RPO and then a number of HPOs out of Indianapolis that I also worked on. At that time they were just starting and they were driven by postal clerks rather than by the contractors, so the postal clerks go to the HPO, Highway Post Office, as they went along.

And from there I went to Chicago, transferred back to the Chicago office and obviously, I subbed on a number of lines there: Chicago-Gilman to St. Louis, the Chicago and St. Louis, the Chicago-Decatur and St. Louis, the Chicago and Evansville, the Chicago and Cairo, Chicago and Memphis, which was really in Chicago and Carbondale. And then I made regular on the Chicago and Memphis and I ended up my career back on the Highway Post Office in Carbondale and Springfield, out at Carbondale, Illinois.

INTERVIEWER: How long did you serve as a Railway Post Office clerk?

Leroy Ward: I started in 1951 and I ended up in 1968.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?

Leroy Ward: Well, when I started it was considered a very good job. I think I went from 75 cents an hour to $1.78 an hour. Money was a big thing and good jobs were hard to find even back then. I’d just gotten out of service and had planned to go back to school and then this came up and so I just stayed with it.

INTERVIEWER: What were you doing before when you were making 75 cents an hour?

Leroy Ward: I was an apprentice printer for the newspaper.

INTERVIEWER: What types of jobs did you have on the railcars?

Leroy Ward: Oh, distribution, as a distribution clerk we did just about everything, letters, newspapers, just about anything that needed to be done. As they probably told you, one person helped everyone. No one was through with their job until everyone was through so everybody helped in, pitched and helped each other.

INTERVIEWER: Could you possibly describe a typical day on the railcars starting from when you first went in to work and then finishing your shift?

Leroy Ward: Well, on the Chicago and Memphis, we went to work probably about 4:30 in the morning and we left, if I remember right, about 7:30. So we went in early and, I don't know, dressed our racks which was hanging the sacks and labeling our cases and the mail was already there. We started working those as soon as we got there, and we worked pretty hard all the way down. It was about 25 or 30 miles across Kentucky from the Ohio River south but our goal was to get our mail caught up enough that we could take a little nap across Kentucky. That was our goal. And then sleep across Kentucky and then get back up and continue working in to Memphis. Of course then we had the night there and then we come back I think at probably one o’clock in the afternoon the next day and then we’d get in to Chicago about midnight and we’d make two trips then we’d go back at four o’clock the next morning.

It was a very difficult job, I’ll say that.  It was hard work and of course this was before zip codes so we had a number of schemes to learn. At one time I was probably -- now I don't even know where I live, I don’t think, but one time I knew running for most the post offices in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and we had to learn the separations for Chicago city; there were about 4,000 separations in Chicago city. So it was, you know, without ZIP codes, it was a lot of memory work. We got to work six hours and 20 minutes, we got paid for eight hours so we can study and I think our family could attest that we spent a lot of time studying at home. We had a little, what they called a practice case. It looked just like a regular mail case, only smaller squares and we’d have the towns and writing on them, we’d sit and worked it just like we were working mail. We had to have at least 95 percent when we took our exam on it. Basically, it was a good job. It was a fun job, you know, we were just almost like family because we were together for four days and then the others, some of the other trains were six days but when we were working, we were together all the time. So we did enjoy it.

INTERVIEWER: Was there any one job that you liked doing more than the others?

Leroy Ward: I guess I enjoyed all facets of it, just whatever. I mean, like I said the last job on train 2, I was just saying, from Memphis, I worked newspapers. At that time every little town put out a weekly newspaper on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Wednesdays and Thursdays we would come up to Illinois and we’d load the car at one station and we’d take it in and the train, the car was small and we’d load, work all the newspapers and tie them out, put them out and send them to the baggage car. In each station we had to work the papers then tie them up, get them back out so we could start again because there just wasn’t room to work all that mail otherwise.

We’d get in the train at Memphis, the train had come up from New Orleans and it run right behind the engine, the diesel and it was always full of mail when it got to Memphis and very, very hot because it ran, the way I’ve seen it, I’d get in there in 120 and 125 degrees we’d get in the car. And the train was loading mail in Memphis and we loaded until it was off. I was doing nonstop local and the first stop was at Millington, it was just right at the north edge of Memphis and so we’d run to the door and throw it out and throw it all the way up the road. I can’t say there’s any one particular job I enjoyed more than another.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever dislike anything about your position like any small complaints that you just brushed off to the side and didn’t think twice about?

Leroy Ward: You know, I really don’t think so. I really enjoyed my job. I guess I’d still be there now; I’d have been there a long time if they kept the train running. It was all very, very interesting. It was never boring. There’s always something to do.

INTERVIEWER: What type of railcar did you work on?

Leroy Ward: Well, we had 60-foot cars and 30-foot cars. In one and two, you just had a 30-foot car and then eventually they got into a 60-foot car too; a 60-foot car was a full mail car. Several of the smaller lines just had 30- foot cars. In fact in Chicago-Indianapolis, they had a 15-foot car which was really a small mail car. Like I say, I worked about all of them and all the buses.

INTERVIEWER: I know earlier you said that you went from 75 cents an hour to $1.78.

Leroy Ward: $1.78 it was.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what your ending salary was when you were at the railway?

Leroy Ward: No, I have no idea what I was making when I quit but it was much better than that. No, I don’t really know what I was making when I quit.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that for the amount that you did get paid it was fair for the amount of work that you had to do?

Leroy Ward: Well, looking back, it could have been but at that time, of course, it’s still the benefits. I mean I got to retire fairly young and, when we were first off we didn’t have health insurance but the retirement was very good. I mean it still is. I mean having been retired 24 years, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I never went hungry so I guess that made it all worthwhile, the time away from home. I didn’t spend the time with my kids like I probably would have liked to with my family but it all panned out in the end. I mean we’ve enjoyed our lives.

INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on runs?

Leroy Ward: Well, of course we had all of our supplies. We had either papers clips or paper labels or letter slips and of course a couple of changes of clothes and we were required to carry a revolver with us at all time and a badge; nothing more than we usually had to but schemes and schedules, we had to keep our schemes and our schedules up and we had to carry them with us at all times. Other than that just a normal substitute carried -- to be away home for four to six days, probably not enough, probably we had our clothes a little dirty by the time it was over but there’s so much room back and forth.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the longest trip you ever worked?

Leroy Ward: I don’t remember the exact hours. Probably one of the longest was Chicago to Harrisburg, Illinois and they had a derailment and we went on tracks and they had the section crew ahead of us chopping down trees to get the train through. I’m not sure just how long it took but I know it was a long trip for 300 miles.

INTERVIEWER: Could you by chance give me maybe an approximate length of time?

Leroy Ward: I would say maybe, it seemed to me 12 to 15 hours but it was just that one time and I really don’t know for sure. I know we got down there and turned around and come back but the train just went that far and then they hooked the engine on it and turned around and come back.

INTERVIEWER: While you were working as an RPO clerk, did you have a family?

Leroy Ward: Yes, uh-huh. Both my kids were born while I was working. They learned to live with it too. Their mom was a dad too for a while when I was gone but they turned out all right so I guess I wasn’t too bad.

INTERVIEWER: And that kind of leads into my next question. What were your feelings towards leaving your family behind on long trips?

Leroy Ward: Well, you hate to do it but I mean, you know, you have to make a living for your family. Like I said, when I took this job I had planned to continue my education and I didn’t so I didn’t have the education to do anything much else so I just stayed with it. There were times you hate to leave but it was something that you had to do. I mean it’s one of the things that I guess responsibility but it was a good life, we enjoyed it and -- INTERVIEWER: What was your family’s attitude towards your job? What did they think?

Leroy Ward: Well, I think they realized it had to be done. I never did hear them complain so I think my wife kind of liked it. Every time I’d come back, the living room will be painted a different color, the furniture would be moved and so she had the house to herself she could do what she wanted to do without worrying about me, so I guess maybe it was good for both of us to be away awhile.

INTERVIEWER: What were some other things that your wife did to keep herself busy?

Leroy Ward: Well, she worked fulltime too, so that and the kids, well, she didn’t have a whole lot of spare time, except to rearrange furniture and such as that. Of course she managed to keep the yard and the grass cut and everything. So she was a hard worker too, she got us through it all right.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railroads?

Leroy Ward: Oh, I think probably some of the friendships I made. We still -- in fact about four years ago I started -- we hadn’t seen each other for 35 or 40 years and I got together a little reunion and so the last four years we had about 20 of us get together in May every year for one day just to get together. So there have been some lasting friendships and friendships that have been renewed since I started this. That’s just one of the things that we just, I don’t know, just everything was a lot of fun, we enjoyed life with each other.

I was looking at pictures the other day and one of the best things -- I guess maybe not one of the best things but one of the things that on a Saturday night when we leave Chicago, mail was a little lighter and someone was always designated to go to the deli and buy fresh meat and everything and have a spread. On Saturday night, we always had the spread that we never -- any other time we just carried our own lunch but someone was always designated to buy food and we’d have a spread on Saturday night because things were just a little slower and had a little more time. So that was always a fun evening to have a little time to really relax and eat without worrying about anything.

INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything for your safety or for the position that you worked?

Leroy Ward: Yeah, they gave us safety glasses, goggles if we’re doing nonstop local.  That’s the only safety thing we had. About half the time, if you're doing nonstop local and it was hot and sweaty, which it was a big part of the time, you couldn’t wear them anyway because you’d put them on and they’d just steam up and you couldn’t see so you had to -- there’s a little glass seal when you do the local train and the mail off -- would catch it by crane.

You had to depend on that because the goggles were practically useless because, you know, unless the weather was decent because -- and that got to be quite hard too, the local, time to pick out a landmark so as you -- and at nighttime it was altogether different but it was part of the job, it was something you had to do.

INTERVIEWER: Were you ever put into a dangerous or bad situation while on the railway?

Leroy Ward: No, I don’t think so. We were never even involved in a serious accident of any kind that I know of. INTERVIEWER: What about, did you guys ever hit any cars or --?

Leroy Ward: You know one time is the only time I ever remember hitting a car and I have no idea, usually by the time we got stopped, it actually would be way behind us so we would never really know what happened anyway but that’s the only -- I just remembered one time of hitting a car.

INTERVIEWER: Did you guys ever find any type of stowaway on the train cars trying to rummage through baggage or steal something?

Leroy Ward: No, we didn’t. We used to have a lot of these. At one time, they used to send baby alligators. We used to have a lot of fun with those, we’d get them out and play with them before we put them back in the box which probably was -- it was unsaid but it was one of the things that -- there used to be a lot of live animals, a lot of chickens. I remember one time a box of chickens busted open and before we got it closed, there probably -- I don't know how many had ran back across the car and the wind and catch them -- when the door and the wind come through the door, they just sweep them out on the side. But there were a lot of live bees. We had bees and all kinds of live animals at one time we shipped through the mail.

INTERVIEWER: Did the bees ever get out?

Leroy Ward: Well, they would buzz around. They never – stay away from there. I guess they probably shipped the queen bee; being there and they’d be buzzing around but they never bothered anyone. They just stayed close to the container if they were out of the container. I don’t know of anyone who ever got stung with them.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of any of the other clerks who experienced a dangerous or bad situation?

Leroy Ward: Well, we’ve had -- I don’t remember now how many but certainly different ones that when we were working in the station in Chicago and they go to switch the car and they hit it pretty hard. I know a couple of them that were hurt pretty bad over that, but right now, I can’t even remember their names but I do remember a couple. There were times when they hit the car pretty hard and if you weren’t prepared for it, it’ll bounce you around and I know --

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of any serious accidents even from older clerks that may have told you something?

Leroy Ward: No. One time when I first started on the Cleveland-St. Louis, they were talking about they had met a freight train that had a load of steel and then somehow they had an accident or something and one of these bars of steel, big, had come up and come down through the roof of the mail car. Luckily, there was no one standing there when it hit but it did come right down through the roof of the mail car. No, I don’t remember really too many bad accidents that we were involved in.

INTERVIEWER: What about attempted robberies, did you ever hear of stories of thieves trying to rob the train?

Leroy Ward: Oh, I’ve read literature about it years ago but in my lifetime I don’t remember ever hearing of any - no. At one time, I wasn’t on the train at this time but they used to pay all the military in cash and they threw the -- the Chattanooga [indiscernible]. They threw it off; they didn’t stop there at that time and the money flew back under the train. I know when they came to Centralia they were still picking money up from underneath the train. So after that they started stopping there, and of course we were supposed to have our guns loaded, but every crossing between Chicago and -- ran through they have the MPs out to guard the crossing and I could never figure out why. If they put that many people out, they could just send someone to Chicago and pick up the payroll. But we carried the payroll down for a number of years like that on the train.

I never did hear of anybody trying to steal anything. We did have our -- maybe someone told you about that one time. I was working Alabama going south and there was another crew, a crew out of Memphis and crew out of Chicago. We worked the same jobs. At one time as we were coming north, the crew going south when the train stopped at Carbondale some of the guys got off at Carbondale and as soon as one boy got away from the train, the inspector stopped him and opened up his grip and he had been taking the -- there’s a charity out of Wallace, Mississippi and people just sent cash. He never talked to anyone else as far as I know but they opened up his grip and he had envelopes in there with cash for Wallace, Mississippi. Of course we never saw him again.

And then the train got to Memphis when I was going to north. The guy who rode in Alabama opposite me, as soon as he got away, they opened his grip and he had mail for Selma, another charity in Selma, Alabama - the same thing. And these two boys, two guys were taking at that time, you know, just a little dollar here and dollar there and they just put a few in their grip along the way, I guess, and they got both of them and I never saw of them. As far as I know they never talked to anyone else. I figured I was pretty fortunate because I was working just the opposite at the same time they -- but that’s the only, the only theft that I really knew of, was those two guys that were taking dollars here and a dollar there.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were a Railway Post Office clerk?

Leroy Ward: No, we didn’t. We didn’t have too many blacks in our crew but, no, they were treated just like everyone else.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear any stories of clerks experiencing racial discrimination?

Leroy Ward: No, really I didn’t.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organization such as a union or club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?

Leroy Ward: Yeah, Postal Transportation Clerk Union. What they called a Line Committee which would be a union steering -- once I got posted in, I was on the Line Committee for them for a while.

INTERVIEWER: What types of things did you do for the union?

Leroy Ward: Well, we met but actually we didn’t have the authority to do anything. We just made suggestions and if they wanted to do it, fine. If not, well they didn’t. We were just there as a committee to make recommendations I guess more than anything else.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position?

Leroy Ward: No. I guess the only thing if I could have done it all along, it would be fine but no, it was -- I enjoyed just everything. I really can’t think of anything I disliked about it, other than the fact that you had be away from home. Sometimes the exams got kind of, if you didn’t really study you’d kind of worry about them sometimes. That was it I guess.

INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a Railway Post Office clerk?

Leroy Ward: Oh, I think probably the fellowship because like I said, we were a family and I think I miss the people that I worked with. It’s altogether different in the post office than it was out there. We’re just more a tight-knit group. Like I said, everyone worked together. No one’s job was done until everybody’s job was done so it was altogether different. I found that out when I went into the post office. The first thing I noticed was I was working and they were all standing there watching because I was used to working fast and hard and the clerks weren’t used to that so they just stood back and let me do it. It was a different job than most jobs.

INTERVIEWER: For the last question, is there any other information you would like to share with researchers about your experience or position with the Railway Post Office? This could be funny stories, pranks that you did on one another, interesting things that you saw on the road.

Leroy Ward: Well, I remember one time we had, of course the foreman was always the senior man on there and he always had a little extra to carry and he had an extra little bag he carried for all of his foreman supplies. People started putting LA locks in the bag and he never said a word, he’d just pick it up and carry it. One time they load it up completely and he jerked, and he jerked about three times and then he jerked real hard and he jerked the handle off his grip and he just kept right on walking with the handle and never said a word. He just -- one of the things he just -- a lot of things went on that everybody enjoyed. Like I say, I enjoyed my career. I started out on the Highway Post Office and end up on the Highway Post Office.

INTERVIEWER: Were there any other funny memories that you can recall?

Leroy Ward: Oh, let me see, I don’t know offhand. People were always playing practical jokes on one another.

INTERVIEWER: What kind of practical jokes?

Leroy Ward:  I’m trying to think.  I know we went to change clothes in Memphis one time and my boss wore  glasses and he had a tight T-shirt and he bent down over his head and got to his glasses and couldn’t get it down and I started making fun of him and he made me a remark any other SOB on the line would have said a word you got to tell everybody about it. I don’t know, we just -- I can’t really think of any.  Well, like I say, I told you about the alligators they used to try to -- they’d get out of the box and somebody slip it down into the mail and they’d be working the mail and once he reached down and grabbed a package of mail then there was that little baby alligator in there and you manage to drop it in a hurry.

No, really, I can’t. Probably if I’d stop and think but I can’t think of anything, really practical jokes right now that --

INTERVIEWER: Were there any sights that you may have seen on the road that you probably wouldn’t have been able to go to if you were working at a stationary post office?

Leroy Ward:  Well, no.  You mean I don’t do -- we spent -- especially when we went to Memphis, we could go in the evening time if there was anything going on in there and we were there in the evening for that. But everything else, probably I would have done at home - things. We were there from five until all night long so anything going on in Memphis in the evening, we could usually go and see. But that’s about the only thing that would have been different because the other times, we usually didn’t have time for anything like that.

INTERVIEWER: What was the weirdest thing that you ever saw in the mail?

Leroy Ward: The weirdest thing? Well, I don’t know. I would say probably the time that the box of chickens got lose and they were -- before we gathered them, they were about -- I don't know how many went out the door because we always worked with the doors open. It was too hot to work with the doors closed.

Maybe one of the things I shouldn’t tell, but most of us never carried bullets in our revolver. We just strapped them on and carried them like that. It’s all my luck to deliver registered mail to the Chicago Post Office when we got off the train to Chicago, and I called off to take the registered mail up there with my unloaded revolver on and there were three guys out there with sawed off shotguns to escort me to the post office. I felt kind of stupid then riding along with those guys who wanted to look out for me without any bullets on my gun. I guess kind of like Bonnie and Clyde I just went along with it. It was just one of those things that I guess we felt too safe because we never had any experience with anybody trying to rob us, so we felt safer without any bullets in our gun. In that way there was no danger of an accident.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any other stories that you have?

Leroy Ward: Oh, let me see, I don’t know. I guess maybe one of the first things I learned which strictly maybe shouldn’t be told but when I first started going to Cleveland, our foreman, he said, “Boy, do you know how to play poker?” I said well, I had played. And he said, “Well, if you get in a poker playing crew, you get the best crew on the road,” because like I say, everybody chipped in and helped and any number of times, we used to -- I’ve seen us slow down. The train will be slowing down going into the station. We’d sit down and just played one hand of poker before the train stopped. So if you got into a crew like that, well, they -- it’s especially hard to -- so they can sit down and play. We didn’t play too many but every time we get a chance, we’d sit down and I had a little bag with my poker money in it. In fact, I still left it there, it’s still in my grip with my poker money in it. But that was one of the things that people had done. I mean it didn’t take up a lot of time but if they had just a few spare minutes, well, that’s what they’re doing. I can’t really think of anything different.

Jerry Watson

Mr. Jerry Watson was a RMS clerk for 12 years, starting as a substitute and running between Chicago and Evansville, Illinois (CE&I line) and between Chicago and St. Louis (GM&O line). Once he became a regular, his shifts were typically 11-12 hours long. Mr. Watson worked exclusively on the Illinois Central line as a regular clerk, until 1967 when the service closed.

Jerry Watson Interview Transcript

Jerry Watson: Name is Jerry Watson and I worked on the Railway Mail Service for about 11 to 12 years.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a substitute or a regular?

Jerry Watson: What was that?

INTERVIEWER: Did you work as a sub or as a regular?

Jerry Watson: Oh, okay. I started out as a sub. When you start, you don't go directly to the Railway Mail Service. You go to the airport. I worked at the Chicago Airport which is Midway Airport or you could work in the terminal and you worked there for usually a year, a year and a half until you got enough seniority to go on the trains and that's what I did. I went on the trains as a sub.

INTERVIEWER: What rail lines did you work on and which locations did you travel between?

Jerry Watson: I worked on the Illinois Central between Chicago, Carbondale and Memphis. And I worked on the CE&I between Chicago and Evansville, Indiana and I worked on the GM&O between Chicago and St. Louis. I did all those as a sub. When I became a regular, I worked on the Illinois Central only.

INTERVIEWER: I know that you said that you worked for about 11 or 12 years as a Railway Post Office clerk. Do you remember which years you worked?

Jerry Watson: Yeah. I think I started at the air field in 1955, and it was late '56 that I went on the trains, and I worked there until 1967.

INTERVIEWER: What made you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?

Jerry Watson: My father was a brakeman on the Illinois Central Railroad. He associated with mail clerks because he worked the baggage car, too. When I got out of the Navy in 1954, he asked me what I was going to do for a living. I didn't know and he said, “Why don't you get a job as a mail clerk?” He said, “That's a good job.” So I applied for it and that's the reason I got it.

INTERVIEWER: What types of jobs did you have on the railcars?

Jerry Watson: What types of job on the railcars? Well, we had letter sorting, pouch rack sorting, we distributed bundles of letters and also they sent a lot of newspapers back in those days and they also have what they called a paper rack where you sorted newspapers going to different towns and other RPO service trains.

INTERVIEWER: For any one of the jobs that you worked, could you describe a typical day on the railcar starting when you first went into work?

Jerry Watson: Well, you go into work, it depends what train you were working on. Each one was a little bit different and it's usually two or three or four hours before the train left the depot. You'd go to work and different members come in different times but they're usually the initial crew. There would be several who show up at the same time. You'd have street clothes on, you'd have a grip suitcase with you, you'd change your street clothes, put your work clothes on, usually a cap and coveralls or something like that because it was pretty dirty and dusty.

After you got your work clothes on, if you were working the newspaper rack, you would hang in the sacks in the racks for the newspaper distribution, or if you were working the pouch rack, you would hang the pouches. If you were working letters, all the letters were worked on one end of the car and each train was set up for different states. For instance, if it was heading south, you might be working Illinois and Kentucky and then Tennessee and Mississippi, maybe Arkansas. The cases were fixed where you could turn the label headers and you could work different states then they’d start bringing the mail and you'd start sorting it out, get to work.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have any type of layover on your runs?

Jerry Watson: Yes.  I run mostly to Carbondale, Illinois which is a little over 300 miles from Chicago.  You'd go down one day or evening whichever trains you happen to be on and then you'd layover down there, most the time eight to 10 hours and then you’d catch your northbound train going back.

INTERVIEWER: Was there any one job that you liked doing the most?

Jerry Watson: No, I think I enjoyed the whole work. I did a little bit of all of it; especially, when you’re subbing you do a little bit of everything, and I enjoyed it all.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever dislike anything about any of the positions you worked and this can be just a small complaint that you brushed off to the side?

Jerry Watson: The stuff I didn't like?

INTERVIEWER: Yes. Such as being too dirty, no air-conditioning.

Jerry Watson: No. You just learn to live with the conditions because it was hot in the summertime and maybe cool in the wintertime. But no, it didn't bother me too bad. No.

INTERVIEWER: What type of railcar did you work on the most?

Jerry Watson: The type? Well, the days of the old wooden mail cars was gone when I started and our cars was like a baggage car only it was converted into mail use and that was just made different inside and they were steel cars.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the length of the cars that you worked on?

Jerry Watson: Most of the time, it was a 60-foot car. Occasionally, as a sub, I would work on 30-foot cars.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever happen to work on a 15-foot?

Jerry Watson: A 15? No, I never did work on a 15.

INTERVIEWER: When you worked on the railways, do you remember what your starting salary was?

Jerry Watson: It was less than $2 an hour. Seemed like $1.70 something or $1.80 something but I'm not positive.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what your ending salary for the railcars was?

Jerry Watson: No, I don't. I don't know what it was when we ended.

INTERVIEWER: But just from what you do remember about your pay, do you believe that it was fair for the amount of work that you had to do?

Jerry Watson: Yes, I do. I believe it's fair because we got paid an hour’s pay for every 48 minutes we worked. That was to compensate part of our time that we had to study for examinations and prepare things at home, prepare labels and stuff like that that we had to take to work with us. We had to have that done in advance. So I think that the pay was pretty fair at that time.

INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on trips?

Jerry Watson: Okay. Well, you had a couple of changes of clothes in there plus your work clothes, an extra pair of shoes, your socks, stuff like that, coffee cup, and you'd carry a smaller bag if you carried your lunch. We'd have our revolvers; we had to wear .38s while we worked for protection of the mails. Schemes and schedules, we'd have schemes and schedules of the different trains and different states. Everybody didn't work the same state. The different people would work different states, so you had the schemes for the states that you worked and the train schedules for those dates.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what the longest trip you ever worked was?

Jerry Watson: What was that?

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the longest trip you ever worked?

Jerry Watson: Oh, the longest trip? Well, probably running to Memphis. It was probably 550 to 600 miles. And when we run to Memphis, you'd go down one day and you'd go back the next.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember how many hours that took you?

Jerry Watson: Let’s see. That was probably an 11 to 12-hour trip each way.

INTERVIEWER: While you were working as a Railway Post Office clerk, did you have a family? Jerry Watson: Yes, I was married at that time.

INTERVIEWER: How did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?

Jerry Watson: Well, the wife at that time was my first wife. She just took care of the boys and I worked. Then I'd work usually for six days and then I'd get about a week off. And then I'd go home for a week. It just became normal.

INTERVIEWER: How did your family cope while you were away?

Jerry Watson: Well, they did all right until after about eight years. Well, me and the first wife got divorced because I guess maybe the stress could have been too much on her. I don't know.

INTERVIEWER: What were some of the things that your family did to keep themselves busy while you were gone?

Jerry Watson: What they did to keep busy?


Jerry Watson: Well, I don't know really. I guess they would just -- back in those days, you stayed home quite a bit or you visited family members, or you went to the park, or went to the movies, stuff like that.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railroad?

Jerry Watson: Oh, gosh. I just enjoyed it and I've always enjoyed my work. I can't remember if there was anything special.  When we were laying over in Chicago, I would do a lot of things.  I’d go to the museums or science centers, art museums or walk around the park, walk around downtown Chicago. It was a lot safer than it is nowadays and just stuff like that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you still keep in touch with any of the former clerks?

Jerry Watson: Yes, I do keep in touch with some of them. Once a year, we have a dinner that we get together. Usually about a dozen of us get together.

INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything either for your safety or for your position?

Jerry Watson: Yeah. They would supply the labels and stuff and then you had to prepare them at home.  You'd have to stamp your name on the labels; you'd have to stamp your name and the train you was on, and the date but they supplied this. But then you had to do the work and get them prepared for work.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything else that they gave you?

Jerry Watson: Well, they supplied the schemes, the schedules and then they'd also supply you with updates quite often and you'd have to keep them up to date. They supplied you with a gun and that's about it. Equipment, it was in the mail car that the pouches or sacks; of course, they supplied all that stuff.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Did you ever experience anything dangerous or were you ever put into a bad situation while on the railway?

Jerry Watson: No. We've seen a few wrecks but we weren’t actually in it. I wasn't actually in a wreck but we came close to a few of them but nothing really dangerous other than one time we had a thief in the baggage car right next to the mail car.  He had a knife and was rummaging through the things.  We had to stop at the first town to get the law enforcement there. That was probably the closest to anything like that.

INTERVIEWER: What happened with that? Like how did he get on to the train and how did you guys find out that he was there?

Jerry Watson: Usually the baggage had already -- there is more than one baggage car. And the baggage man, I think, saw him. He got in touch with the engineer or something and we stopped at the next town. But the guy, he jumped out of the train on the opposite side of the depot and took off, but then they caught him though. He went up by the engine and they caught him up there.

INTERVIEWER: You said that you came close to having a couple of wrecks. Do you remember what happened?

Jerry Watson: Maybe a train that was coming towards us would have a wreck. We’d get down there and then we'd have to skim by real close and there would be wrecked cars. If our track wasn't damaged, we could get on by. Just train wreck that run off the tracks and they would dump cars over but we never was actually in it.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember if you ever heard of anybody who did experience anything dangerous or bad on the railway, any accidents?

Jerry Watson: No. But one of our older clerks - I started out when I was pretty young - one of the older guys would tell about the time that they had a robbery and some of the clerks were shooting back and forth at the robbers. But that was 20 years before I ever started.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of any other stories that may have happened before you came on?

Jerry Watson: Well, I probably did but I can't remember right now.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination on the railcars?

Jerry Watson: No, I don't think so. This was back in the ‘50s and I know the only discrimination - not in the mail cars - but when you get to Memphis of course there was discrimination down there. But we didn't have any in the mail car, no.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think you didn't have any discrimination on the mail cars?

Jerry Watson: Well, everybody just worked together. Most of our crews were Caucasian or white people. And we had a few blacks and I worked with two or three of them and they were all good people. Everybody worked together. That's the main reason, I guess.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of anybody who did experience racial discrimination, maybe not on your line but on a different line?

Jerry Watson: No, I didn't. Never did hear of anything like that.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organizations such as a union or club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?

Jerry Watson: Yes, we had an association but it wasn't a union. I mean, it was, but they called it an association. I belonged to that, yes.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what it was called?

Jerry Watson: No, I don't. I don't remember. We had a man that was sort of like a spirit or a president of the organization that took care most of your things but I don't remember what the name of it was.

INTERVIEWER: What types of things did the association do?

Jerry Watson: Back then, about the only thing -- there was no negotiations with the post office. All we could do was they would speak with our legislators in Washington and stuff like that. At one time, our congressman from our district, they invited him to make a trip with us on the train and he did. The congressman really got down on the train to see what was going on.

INTERVIEWER: Did the association ever advocate for anything in particular?

Jerry Watson: Activate anything in particular?


Jerry Watson: No. Just legislative things and especially when Congress would have to vote on a pay raise or something like that, they would advocate that. Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Were you ever featured in any type of publication for the association?

Jerry Watson: No.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position? Jerry Watson: Not that I know of.

INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a Railway Post Office clerk?

Jerry Watson: Well, I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the time off.  Most of the time I say if you worked a week and had a week off and back in those days, I did a lot of hunting and fishing and I enjoyed those times and with the family enjoyed those times a lot.

INTERVIEWER: Then for the last question, is there any other information you would like to share with researchers about your experience or position with the Railway Post Office?

Jerry Watson: Well, I don't know. When they started shutting us off, it was because of the ZIP code went into effect in the ‘60s and they started flying mail in airplanes a lot where they didn't work it on the trains. So everybody just went in to their local post offices.

INTERVIEWER: Is that what you did? Did you go into the local post office? Jerry Watson: Yes. I went in to Centralia, Illinois.

INTERVIEWER: And how did that job compare with being on the train?

Jerry Watson: It was a little bit different because you had set hours, you worked five days a week and you'd work eight hours. Some of the postal clerks who were down there resented railway mail clerks coming in because we had our seniority and we made two grades more in pay than they did. They had to pay us the same rate for two years before we dropped back down to the post office salary which was a little bit lower. But I enjoyed the work there; we knew more because we worked different states and in this local post office, they didn't work different states like that.

INTERVIEWER: I know that you said that when you were in Chicago and you were traveling back and forth, you walked around and you saw different sights. Was there anything in particular that stands out to you? Anything interesting that you may have seen?

Jerry Watson: They had the Chicago Grant Park, got the Buckingham Fountain and that was always enjoyable. They had statues and stuff. You could go over to the aquarium, on the lake ground, you could go around the lake and watch the boats and stuff like that. And sometimes when I was in Chicago or at home, you'd have to be studying, examinations for different states that we worked and we had to make, I think it was 95 or 97 to pass and you'd have this exam about twice a year, and I learned every town in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and maybe Kentucky - and everybody had different states that they learned every town in those states and we’d get to study those, too, sometimes when you were in your lay off.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any type of funny stories that you may have or pranks that you remember playing with the other clerks?

Jerry Watson: People raised chickens and a lot of time we'd be transporting baby chickens that would be day-old baby chickens and once in a while they would get out of their boxes and if it was in summertime and you had your doors and they usually was spring time, the train doors would be open and sometimes little chicks would come walk down the aisle and they’d get swooped up with air current. And another time we'd have to kick mail off at nonstop stations and this one boy or man, he kicked the mail off. He pushed and kicked at the same time and he lost his shoe. So he got upset, he took his other shoe off and of course he was two or three or 400 feet up this track at that time. He threw his other shoe away. The next night when we come back by down through there going southbound, they'd found his shoe and they put it in the pouch with the mail but he still only had one shoe because he done thrown the other away. And then we had one guy that was a little short; he was like a banty chicken. And one time, he got one of the mail pouches and sack pouches, newspaper sack and we'd put him in it and say we're going to ship him off but we finally let him out and just stuff like that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any other interesting stories that you might want to say, anything that you can remember?

Jerry Watson: I can't think of nothing right now but I'm sure we had a lot of funny moments probably. I know that one fellow one time -- the porters of the trains, these were always on the passenger trains. The porters had this little stool that people stepped on to get in the train. One time there's one fellow; he sort of swiped the porter’s stool and brought it in the mail car where we had boxes where they’d put mail. He was short so he had to get up there and get the box, and get to put the mail in or get it out with that stool. Other than that, well, I don't know.

Cecil Watts

Cecil T. Watts began his career with the Post Office as a teenager, working as a letter carrier and at an airmail field before settling in the Railway Mail Service. As a clerk, he traveled between Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, working on the Council Bluffs line and the “Chic, Rich and Cin” line—Chicago, Richmond, Cincinnati, until 1967. When the RMS closed, he moved to the Minneapolis post office.

Cecil Watts Family Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and how you were affiliated with the Railway Post Office clerk?

Cecil E. Watts: My name is Cecil E. Watts and it’s my father, Cecil T. Watts, who is the RMS clerk.

INTERVIEWER: What position did the clerk have?

Cecil E. Watts: Ooh, I’m not sure that I can answer -- I only knew as RMS clerk. He did serve as clerk in charge many times on the runs.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know if he was a sub or a regular?

Cecil E. Watts: Oh, he was definitely a regular.

INTERVIEWER:  And do you know what lines your father traveled on and between which cities?

Cecil E. Watts: Yes, I know some of them. He was on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. He was on the Chicago and Minneapolis and Chicago, Savannah and Minneapolis. The Council Bluffs I believe was the -- that was the main line that he was on, Chicago and Council Bluffs. Oh, there was one other, Chicago, I got it as Chic, Rich and Cin - Chicago, Richmond, Cincinnati, I believe. I guess that’s it.

INTERVIEWER: What areas did you live in while he was a Railway Post Office clerk?

Cecil E. Watts: The family lived in La Grange, Illinois, a suburb about 16 miles west of Chicago.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know why your father wanted to become a railway post office clerk?

Cecil E. Watts: I believe I remember that. First of all, he had always liked the railroad and he had been a letter carrier in our hometown. He’d worked at the airmail field in Chicago and he wanted something a little bit different and when that kind of position became available to run on the road, he went for it. He ran on the railroad I should say as a mail clerk. So that was it.

INTERVIEWER: Could you please describe the types of duties he had?

Cecil E. Watts: That’s going to be a little hard. As a clerk in charge, that’s somewhat obvious, he was responsible for all of the clerks on the train or the car and all of their duties and assigning them duties and schedules. As far as I recall he worked in many of those positions. He had to lock out pouches which were the ones, I guess, they were, financially, they were worth a lot of money. He used to grab the pouches off the arm at the stations as the train went by.

He also just did the regular mail sorting on the run and getting the mail ready to get dumped in the pouches and thrown off at the stations where they would be delivered locally. That’s pretty much what I remember.

INTERVIEWER: What was the longest time he was away from home?

Cecil E. Watts: Wow. I’m going to say that I remember something like seven to maybe 10 days. There could have been two weeks in it but I can’t quite remember that. Seven to 10 is probably -- with 10 being the upper limit, being the longest time.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know how your father coped with being away from home for so many days at a time?

Cecil E. Watts: Can you ask that in a different manner?

INTERVIEWER: How did he take being away from home for so long?

Cecil E. Watts: Well, he wasn’t depressed about it. Many of the places that he stayed over, he had friends and relatives in the general areas. He took it well. I don’t know that there was ever any kind of a problem. It was just he had made a lot of friends and my father was a very outgoing person and so we had friends all over the country and there were many places that he went that he would stay with friends often.

INTERVIEWER:  Do you know by chance what type of accommodations he had when he was away?

Cecil E. Watts: Well, mainly it was at the home of friends. There were times of course where he stayed in like a rooming house where he would just stay in a rented room but other than that, I don’t know, I don’t remember. I don’t remember him ever saying he stayed in a hotel. Usually it was just a rooming house or quite often, as I said, friends and relatives as well.

INTERVIEWER: How did you and your family cope with him being away from home so often?

Cecil E. Watts: Well, during that time I was in high school and I might have been in my early college years, first couple years of college, so that left my mom by herself and she worked full time in Chicago. We had a Cocker Spaniel that was a great companion to my mom. She had a dog, she had me for many of the years because I was still living at home and we were very close. My mother and I were extremely close.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you used to do with your father to help him prepare for work?

Cecil E. Watts: Oh yes, always. One of the things I did -- well, several, my mother and I used to quiz him on the -- I think this is the right word, the schemes that he had to learn and memorize. So we used to test him and then he would take his own test at home where he would put the names of the town with the railroad lines that supply that town in the little pockets in the case that he had which I still have. In fact, I just looked it up yesterday. It’s on my garage. This case, it looked like a suitcase, you open it up and you stick these little cards in it to test yourself before you go in to the real test.

I also kept his book up to date, what was that called? I guess that was like a scheme too. There would constantly be updates to railroad lines supplying a town, supporting a town, et cetera, et cetera, and I, after I learned how to do that, I did that for my dad most of the time.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything else that you used to do to help him prepare for work?

Cecil E. Watts: No, other than I’ve gone with him several times from our home in La Grange down to Chicago to the train that he was going out on that day. I would get to go down there and I’d meet a lot of guys and I get to see the inside of the car and then I’d go back home. That was always fun for me.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever help pack his lunch? If so, what did you pack and how often did you help out?

Cecil E. Watts: Actually, my mom and my dad did most of that. They took care of the food that he took with him. I do not remember ever helping pack the lunch.

INTERVIEWER: What were some of the things you did while your father was away from home?

Cecil E. Watts: Well, like I said, I was in high school so I was active in sports and so I was always practicing for my sport at high school and other than that, homework and just spending time with my mom when I wasn’t doing my work. We used to read a lot together. I mean reading individually our own books but it’s pretty much what it was while he was gone.

Oh, we also -- well, it’s not part of that, but we lived near the Burlington, the CB&Q, Chicago, Burlington and Quincy that he rode on. So after he would go into Chicago and I’d come back home, we would pretty much know the schedule and when the train went by that he was on, we lived in a home that was literally no more than a half mile from the front of our house where we could go out front and maybe walk a little bit towards the railroad and we could wave to dad as he went by. That was really a fun thing.

INTERVIEWER: I know that you said that your mom worked full time, what did she do?

Cecil E. Watts: She worked for the State of Illinois as a compensation clerk, Illinois State Employment Service as a compensation clerk.

INTERVIEWER: What were some of the ways you guys kept in touch with one another?

Cecil E. Watts: You mean while my dad was gone?


Cecil E. Watts: And kept in touch with him?


Cecil E. Watts: Oh. Well, telephone was probably the only thing that I’m aware of. Well, had no email at that time, but mom and dad would pretty much stay in touch by telephone. I don’t remember it being daily or anything like that but quite often they were in touch.

INTERVIEWER: Do you by chance know some of the ways he kept himself occupied on the train after his work was complete?

Cecil E. Watts: I really don’t think I know that. I suppose the guys just talked. But I really don’t remember. I do remember the stories of drinking that horrible train coffee. There were lots conversations between the clerks about the coffee so I don’t know, maybe that’s what they did near the end of the run.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of your father as a Railway Post Office clerk?

Cecil E. Watts: One that stood out to me or does stand out to me is when he took his test for the different states that he had to learn about was the scores that he got, he was consistently in the 90s and often 100 percent correct on memorizing or remembering all of the trains or the lines that supported the different towns in a state. It just blew me away that someone could remember all that. And that was the one thing that my mom and I always used to quiz him on and maybe that helped and if it did I’m really proud of that.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else that stands out in your mind?

Cecil E. Watts: The fact that he was on the Railway Mail Service theoretically right up until the end when they began to shut it down and then he transferred out back into the post office in Minneapolis. But he was with us for several years, I can’t even remember how many. I know that it was quite a few.  So that’s one -- I guess two accomplishments that he -- two awards that he got, one was from the post master -- no, that was from the post office, let’s see, I can’t remember. Well, when he left Railway Mail Service, there was a recommendation that was approved for him to serve as member of the board of

U.S. Civil Service examiners in Minneapolis. That was his transferring out move. I don’t know whether the good job that he did was the reason for that. It seemed like a nice move and he was very proud of that and I was proud of that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know if he was a part of any special organization, group or union associated with the railway post office?

Cecil E. Watts: He was a part of the Council Bluffs RPO group. They were pretty close. I’m not sure why that particular group was so close but they kept in touch with each other all the time and they had a newsletter that they were a part of and some guy -- picked up creating that. One day he picked up and he started writing it and they would always send him news and he would put it all together and send out the newsletter to them called Illowa.

INTERVIEWER: While your father was away, did you ever associate with any of the other clerks’ wives or families?

Cecil E. Watts: While he was away, yes. There was one gentleman in particular that I remember who in fact was a reciprocating type of thing. He was from, I think, it was Richmond, Indiana. I got to know him very well. I met his wife once on occasion and he was a railway mail clerk and he would stay at our house whenever he was in the Chicago, whenever he would come in to Chicago. He’s the only person that I remember. I met several of the others but it was just on occasion when I was with my dad, not on my own.

INTERVIEWER: When your father was in town, did your family keep touch with the other clerks that he worked with?

Cecil E. Watts: Oh, yeah. Wow. Like I said, my dad was extremely outgoing, a very outgoing, gregarious person and he was always in touch with many of the guys for whatever the reasons. I don’t know, they just got together; they were together all the time. My dad liked to play golf. He’s a very good golfer and he played golf with some of the guys. So that was as far as social getting together.

INTERVIEWER: Other than golf there wasn’t much other social activity between the families?

Cecil E. Watts: Well, I don’t know how special they were but there were like luncheons or dinners. Maybe there were some annual get-togethers but nothing much more than that that I can recall. I can’t remember anything else, I’m sorry.

INTERVIEWER: It’s okay. Was there anything that you did not like about your father’s position with the Railway Post Office?

Cecil E. Watts: No, nothing, nothing whatsoever. He was happy with it and we were happy that he was happy with it. It was enjoyable to him. On the Burlington, the Council Bluffs, I guess I should call it, it went through the town on Kewanee, Illinois which is a town that he grew up in. He was born there, grew up there and on many occasions his parents who were still alive at that time would come up to the train station and they could see him as the train went by and they would throw him maybe some bag of something to eat and he would throw notes off to them. That made it for a very wonderful time because of keeping up with the relationship with the family. I loved everything about it.

INTERVIEWER: Did your father ever tell you if he was ever put into a dangerous or bad situation?

Cecil E. Watts: Bad, yes, dangerous, no. Bad situation was that he had some pretty tough time socially. My father was a black man - is, was - he is deceased. He was in the early years of the railway mail and there were some pretty tough situations that took place. Socially having to deal with that was a little difficult, especially on travels in the southern part of the country. He didn’t do that very often, he wasn’t there very often but in many occasions in Cincinnati which is in Ohio was sort of rough, I remember him telling me about Cincinnati.

I can’t remember any other town but socially with having some of the other clerks except him, that was difficult. I guess the way that he conquered that was by his good works. He’s a very good, conscientious clerk and so he did the best that he could. He knew his job very well. He knew everybody else’s, as I mentioned being a clerk in charge at times and so I think that’s what got him through and got him pretty much accepted by all the guys all the time.

INTERVIEWER: Just from the history of racial discrimination within like the early 1900s, did they ever call him mean names or how was it socially awkward, if you could just elaborate a little bit more?

Cecil E. Watts: Yeah, there was verbiage; there were words that were thrown back and forth about his color which had of course nothing to do with his intelligence. There was debasing language trying to get his goat. I do believe on one occasion I remember him telling me about a conversation and I don’t know who it was. I’m not hedging there, I just don’t remember but the guy used the N word. That was pretty damaging to him but there was no violence, there was no fist to cuffs or altercations like that. There were just a lot of words thrown about to try to make him look like a bad person, not a smart person.

INTERVIEWER: The only reason why I asked for the elaboration is because this is the first interview that I’ve had where something specific happened to the clerk. A lot of the other clerks when I asked them about any type of racial discrimination, most of the time they don’t necessarily brush off but they’ll tell me, oh, no, everybody got along great and nothing ever happened. When I was talking to my boss about that, she was saying how most of the time there was camaraderie, everybody got along but you’ll see that more so towards the late ‘50s early ‘60s and so this is just a new answer to this specific question.

Cecil E. Watts: Well, that was when my dad was here -- let’s see, I graduated high school in ’49 and he had already been running on the road for a few years then and that was back in the ‘40s if you will when that kind of thing happened so I guess you’re pretty much right on target. It definitely got better as time passed.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know if your father ever heard of anybody who experienced a bad or dangerous situation?

Cecil E. Watts: I do not remember that. I do not remember that at all. Dangerous, no.

INTERVIEWER: What was your father’s attitude towards the positions he occupied with the Railway Mail Service?

Cecil E. Watts: His attitude towards the positions, you mean like elevating up in stature, getting a promotion or not getting a promotion?

INTERVIEWER: It could be anything basic.  We kind of leave the interpretation up to the interviewee but I guess sort of what I’m looking for is did he like his job? What were the things that he really liked about his job, was there anything that he ever complained about even if it was just a small informal complaint, just what his attitude was towards his job.

Cecil E. Watts: For the most part I remember him absolutely loving the job. First of all, he liked the railroad so he loved riding on the train. He loved being on the train. He liked the railway mail or he liked the postal service and railway mail being a part of that. It was not a job that he took because he just had to have a job or something like that. He really wanted to do that and he got to do that and it offered quite a bit of off time. Like I mentioned, he loved to play golf so he would have lots of days to play golf when he was off and not on the runs.

I honestly don’t remember anything that he disliked at all. There may have been something but that was a long time ago and I don’t remember that.

INTERVIEWER: After the discontinuation of the Railway Mail Service, what did he end up doing?

Cecil E. Watts: Well, like I mentioned, he received that recommendation to become a member of this board in the Minneapolis PO and he transferred over to the Minneapolis postal department and he worked also in the compensation department. I can’t remember exactly what the job was. I have some notes here. He was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul post office in the finance department in his last years.

He retired in 1971.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know what his attitude was towards his new position?

Cecil E. Watts: I think it was more or less here was a place to just end his career. He really disliked the fact that the Railway Mail Service was discontinuing. That was sort of a downer for him and he had to find something new to do. Actually, by that time I was in college; mom and dad just moved from Illinois to Minneapolis when he took the position there at the Minneapolis post office.

It was an okay thing, it was different. My dad was not necessarily a person who liked to be clerk sitting behind a desk. All his life he had carried mail, delivered mail on the train and the mail service, the Highway Post Office. So to sit behind a desk all day, it was a little bit boring for him but he was getting older so probably it was a good thing to just be taking it easy.

INTERVIEWER: And then for the last question, is there anything else that you would like to let researchers know about your father as a RPO clerk? It could be like interesting stories that he told you or just what you remember about him.

Cecil E. Watts: I can’t remember the stories but I do remember him telling me about the different -- when he would come home from having completed a three-day, five-day, seven-day run, he’d like to tell us about some of the things that took place, about some of the crazy stories that some of the guys had told him or something crazy that had happened in the car.

I wrote an article which became the cover article in that newsletter, the Illowa, about my dad. It was September 2001 issue. I have that right here. I don’t have the issue but I have when it was that I wrote that. There may be something in there but I honestly cannot remember but if it’s in there you’re certainly welcome to quote me on it because at that time, I know I had pulled the information from somewhere. Mostly the information and the conversations were just fun things.

I know there were a couple of times, like I mentioned that there were a couple of ugly incidents but if you think about it, it’s just a social situation at that time. It was a little bit tense sometimes I guess is the word I would use to describe it, language getting a little bit rough and that made it a little bit tough. My dad was able to disarm people and hopefully that’s what he passed on to me. He was able to disarm people with kindness and he was always, just always wanting to help other people. In so doing, seemingly he was able to overcome many of the obstacles that people thought they were going to have with him because he looked different than them. I’m sorry I don’t have anything any more specific than that.

INTERVIEWER: That’s okay. And is there anything else that you would like to say about your father?

Cecil E. Watts: No. I’m just very proud of the fact that he was in that very interesting arm of the United States postal service and he accomplished quite a bit. He ranked high in the scoring. I don’t remember for sure but I think when he retired he had -- oh my gosh, I think he had something like -- the number two years to two-and-a-half years sticks in my mind of sick time accumulated that he retired with a payment of that, of two-and-a-half years of sick time because he really never liked to take time off from work.

INTERVIEWER: That is an awful lot of time to keep.

Cecil E. Watts: At that time you were able to be paid for it, today that wouldn’t happen. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen. You can be forced to take it up or lose it. It’s in the records. I’m sure if they wanted to look it up, they could find that. It was just unbelievable amount of time that he had left over not for vacation but sick time.

INTERVIEWER: That must have been a nice little bonus that he received when he retired.

Cecil E. Watts: Yeah, he was very pleased with that, so was mom.

Edward West

Mr. West started his career in the Post Office, but soon transferred to the railroad tracks. He was a Railway Mail clerk on the Chattanooga and Memphis line from 1960 until 1966, when the train was taken off.

Edward West (EW) Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to work for the Railway Mail Service?

EW: Oh I was working at the post office and I just transferred out on the road.

INTERVIEWER: Did you like it better than working in the post office?

EW: Oh yes, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a little bit about your schedule on the trains? The sort of hours you worked?

EW: I worked on the Chat and Memphis, 45 and 46. We run from Chattanooga to Memphis. And we went to work about 9 o’clock at night, and we pulled out of Chattanooga at 12, and we was supposed to be in Memphis around 8 o’clock the next morning. And we had about a, oh maybe 6 or 8 hour layover in Memphis and then came back to Chattanooga. And we get back, supposed to get back to Chattanooga about 4 o’clock the next morning. And I worked what they called 6 on and 8 off. I’d make 3 trips to Memphis, then we’d be off 8 days.

INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about the conditions on the trains?

EW: They were pretty good. Sometimes steam would go off and it would get cold in the wintertime, but other than that it was okay. It was awful hot during the summertime, cause again we didn’t have air and after the car would be sitting there in the sun all day, that metal car, it was pretty hot. But other than that it was okay.

INTERVIEWER: What was your favorite part about working for the RMS?

EW: Uh, I don’t know, I just enjoyed the type of work and the men I worked with. All of us got along real good, we had a, it was pleasant.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything you did not like about it?

EW: Sometimes you’d get covered up with mail you know, it’d take a while to… sometimes you didn’t get it all worked, so it was, sometimes it was kind of rough. But most times it was okay.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any sort of danger, any train wrecks or anything like that?

EW: One time we, there was a car and train wreck around Iuka, Mississippi and we had to sit there about 6 or 8 hours while they cleared the tracks and took care of the people inside. But other than that, not too much really.

Kenneth Wilson

Mr. Wilson first worked as a substitute for the Railway Mail Service. He ran on the Omaha and Ogden, Omaha and Denver, Omaha and Colorado Springs, Chicago and Council Bluffs, Chicago, Marion and Omaha, Chicago West Liberty and Omaha, and Omaha and Kansas City. He also ran on the Mason City and Omaha Highway Post Office, but he preferred the Railway Post Office, where there was more room to work. After his retirement, Mr. Wilson established his own museum in honor of the Railway Mail Service.

Kenneth Wilson (KW) Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to work with the Railway Mail Service?

KW: I had been working in the mail post office and was talking to some of the guys that were on the Railway Mail Service, and just transferred out. It was a good way of life.

INTERVIEWER: Did you like it more than working in the post office?

KW: Yes ma’am, I did.

INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a little bit about an average day for you? Like when you would leave, the sort of hours you worked, that sort of thing?

KW: I never was a regular holding down a run. I was a substitute they called ‘em then. I was at the beck and call of somebody taking annual leave or sick leave so I had no regular hours.

INTERVIEWER: When you first started out, did any of the regulars give you a hard time?

KW: No ma’am.

INTERVIEWER: What was your favorite part of the job?

KW: Well, just working letter mail was my favorite part of the job. I didn’t like what they called tending stations, where you threw the mail out and caught mail, I didn’t really like that but some guys did so I didn’t have to do it.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any sort of danger?

KW: One time a train jumped the track at a slow rate of speed, and we probably were at a little danger then but I didn’t know about it, I didn’t feel it.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any other sort of stories or memories from the Railway Mail Service? Something funny that happened, or unusual?

KW: Yes ma’am. I was teaching a rookie how to throw mail off at a town called Denton, Nebraska west of Lincoln, and this rookie had the bag in his hand and was due to throw it off and he dropped the bag, and says “I can’t do it,” “I can’t do it,” so I had to grab the bag and toss it off, and the next trip the rookie said, well “I can do it,” and he kicked the back off, and kicked one of his shoes off. So probably two minutes later he took the shoe off his other foot and threw it out the door. And the next day when we got the pouch of mail from that town, there was the shoe he’d kicked off! So I thought that was kind of funny, he had one shoe left, they sent it back. And then a guy was going to catch mail, you know what catch mail is?

INTERVIEWER: With like the catcher arm?

KW: Yeah. Well he, he got a little confused, raised the catcher arm and caught a bridge over Wood River, Nebraska. Broke it off. Nobody got hurt but he broke it off. And then one time I kicked a big bag of mail and there was a body of water right outside the track and the pouch of mail, pouch of mail, hit the ground, bounced over a fence that was to keep the mail from going in there, and ran right into the, rolled right into the pond. I don’t know whatever happened to that mail, whether they got it out or not.

Francis Wolf

Francis Wolf worked as a Railway Post Office clerk beginning in the 1920s. His family, including son Max, lived in the Port Trevorton, PA area while Francis worked on the train cars. Max notes his father’s pride in his job and of the Railway Mail Service. Francis Wolf passed away while on the job in 1944.

Francis Wolf Family Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and how you are affiliated with the Railway Post Office clerks?

Max Wolf: Okay. My name is Max Wolf and the postal clerk we’re discussing will be my father, Francis A. Wolf.

INTERVIEWER: And do you know what position your father had?

Max Wolf: I beg your pardon?

INTERVIEWER: Do you know what types of positions your father had?

Max Wolf: He was a clerk. First off, he was assigned to the Penn terminal in New York, which was the normal thing to do early. He spent at least a year in a big terminal. Then he transferred -- I don’t have the date when he transferred to Harrisburg. In 1925, he was assigned a clerk’s job on the Harris and Erie RPO, and then they changed that train to Williamsport to Erie in 1935. He was a clerk. In fact, he was a clerk-in-charge.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. And was he a substitute or a regular?

Max Wolf: No, this is regular; this is regular assignment. He subbed while he was in Penn Terminal and subbed while he was in Harrisburg terminal but then the usual time was five years substitution, substitute before he could get a regular job. I experienced that same thing. I spent five years as substitute and finally made a regular position.

INTERVIEWER: All right. And I know that you just said that he worked on the Penn Terminal and then also on the Harrisburg line. Do you know which cities he traveled to?

Max Wolf: Yes. He was from Harrisburg to Erie. The biggest stop is Sunbury, Williamsport, Lock Haven, Renovo, and then of course Emporium and then the line went west to Erie from Emporium.

INTERVIEWER: And what area did your family live in while he was an RPO clerk?

Max Wolf: We lived in the Port Trevorton area.

INTERVIEWER: And how do you spell that? The Port.

Max Wolf: Port and then T-R-E-V-O-R-T-O-N, Trevorton.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. And do you know why he wanted to become an RPO clerk?

Max Wolf: No. He was a -- he attended Freeburg Academy and got a teaching job first, but the pay was so poor and of course, the Railway Post Office is offering so much more. I have his W-2 form and I would like to send it to you. I also have his actual assignment from Harrisburg Terminal to the Harrison Area RPO and you wouldn’t believe all of the things he had to do to go each time. Yes. It’s really interesting. He would work on the trains.

Then on the weekends, he would work in the transfer office in Erie. A transfer office is manned by railway postal clerks. The transfer clerk saw to it that all the mail was properly separated and transferred between trains. I don’t know if you ever heard of the transfer offices. But it’s all part of the duties.

INTERVIEWER: No, I haven’t. Nobody has ever said that before so that’s good. And other than the transfer office, could you describe the duties that he had on the train?

Max Wolf: On the train? Well, basically, he was assigned as a helper. The actual job description was a helper clerk so he would be dumping up the pouches, loading and unloading first, dumping up the pouches and separating them for the clerk executive, for the number one to make distribution to the pouches. So he was a helper. He probably did the nonstop exchange too.

INTERVIEWER: And do you remember what the longest time he was away from home was?

Max Wolf: His job was two weeks on and a week off so he was usually gone for 14 days. But occasionally, he could come home just for a brief visit then perhaps just a change of clothes and then go back on the road. But his job was two weeks on and a week off.

INTERVIEWER: And how did your father cope with being away from home for so many days at a time?

Max Wolf: Well, he managed to raise seven kids and he was a unique person, very strong, well built and he can handle himself pretty well. As sidelight, when I first started working on the train, the clerks said [indiscernible] if I can be worked into a mail case and he said he saw my dad take another clerk up and tried to push him through the letter slots. And it’s just to say he had a temper but that’s just one of the little sidelights.

INTERVIEWER: While he was away, do you know what type of accommodations he had?

Max Wolf: He stayed at -- Williamsport was just a small boarding house but he would sleep overnight and stay there during the day because he would sleep mostly during the day and then work the train at night. I worked the same train years after that.

INTERVIEWER: And while he was away, how did your family cope?

Max Wolf: Well, we did. We lived in the rural area. We had our own livestock and garden, but there wasn’t much travel being done. We entertained ourselves by -- my mother taught music, the piano, and then most of us played some kind of an instrument. We had a lot of fun. But we were always glad to see him come home. From Port Trevorton, it’s about 12 miles to Sunbury and we would pick him off the train at Sunbury and bring him home on his time off.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you used to do to help your father prepare for work?

Max Wolf: Well, when I was ten years old, I would mix his practice cards. He brought them to the case and then checked them and then I would take it pack after pack and put them in the case so he could -- so it would be mixed up so that it wouldn’t be running the same all the time. I helped him with his practice scheme examination.

INTERVIEWER: And was there anything else that you would do?

Max Wolf: Well, occasionally, I would look at his schedules. Schedules had to be corrected and there were just slight slips of paper that he would glue in the page where it belonged. I would do that occasionally too. It was so critical that it wasn’t for a ten-year-old to do.

INTERVIEWER:  Did you ever help pack his lunch?  If so, what did you pack and how often did you help do that? Max Wolf: No. The train he worked on, he was able to eat a breakfast at the railroad station in Williamsport and it’s the same way at Erie. So he didn’t actually pack lunch, just maybe a sandwich or a cake or something but that’s about all.

INTERVIEWER: What were some of the things that you and your family did while your father was away from home?

Max Wolf: Well, we lived right on the Susquehanna River so that was our playground. We learned to use the boats and skating and swimming, the outdoors. Of course, there were six of us. We had a younger, the seventh one was a little girl that was ten years younger than I and I was next to the youngest. So we go to neighbors, play cards, and of course, all outdoor sports, hunting and fishing and trapping. We did the outdoor thing.

INTERVIEWER: And what about your Mom, what does she do while he was away?

Max Wolf: Like I said, she taught piano lessons and there was always somebody sometime during the week who would come there, spend an hour or two practicing piano. Of course she had the gardening to do. She had helped with that but mostly, feeding and keeping seven kids clean.

INTERVIEWER: And school, were you guys in school at the time as well?

Max Wolf: Yes. We attended a one-room school. It was a mile away from our house so that was a one-mile walk one way, two miles round trip at every school day. And of course, when we got to high school, we would bus.

We’d be bussed to [indiscernible], which is about five miles.

INTERVIEWER: What were some of the ways your father kept himself occupied on the train after his work was complete?

Max Wolf: Play cards. The clerks would get together and they loved and enjoyed playing cards, poker. Of course, you always had labels to prepare, facing slips to prepare. They should have all been prepared before you even went out or got on the train. In some cases, we just didn’t get it done.

INTERVIEWER: And while your father was away, was there any -- did you guys keep in touch with him?

Max Wolf: No. We didn’t have the phone and there was no way to make contact. The fact is we didn’t hear how he made out until he’d get home. On one occasion, when I was old enough to recognize if he was pretty well shaken up. Apparently, their engine went off the tracks and hit a rail, a broken rail, and when an engine went into the Brokenstraw Creek north of Warren and he helped get the fireman and the engineer out, which they were [indiscernible] to death, and I can tell he was really shook up. That’s another sidelight. At the time he served, he was in seven serious train wrecks. The one, the most recent one was a rail came up to the bottom of the mail car to the ledge and right out to the roof. And his second clerk the fella he worked with most of the time had, just when we started to hear that the train was in trouble, he dove into the creephole to get over into the baggage side. That rail came right up behind him. He missed it by a second. I think it went about ten feet above the mail car. And he called them telescope [sounds like]. Most of the other accidents were switching problems. And an engine would come back in the dark and slam right into them.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. We’ll actually come back to the stories about the accidents later on in the interview so save some for later.

Max Wolf: Oh yes.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of your father as an RPO clerk?

Max Wolf: Oh, wow. I used to like to sit on the swing with him. We had a porch swing. And of course, he was a very good speaker apparently while he went to Freeburg Academy, which wasn’t very much, would be about the second or sophomore year of high school but yes, we used to-- and he loved to take us out in the boat and collect firewood, driftwood, and anything that has to do with the river. He built us a good boat with a double set of oars and of course, he’d sit in the back and steer. We had great times. And he hunted too but not big game. He hunted small game, rabbits and stuff. He enjoyed his family.

INTERVIEWER: Was he a part of any type of special organization, group, or union associated with the RPO?

Max Wolf: Yes. I think it was the -- I’m not sure. I knew he talked of the Railway Post Office Clerks Union. I don’t think he did. I don’t think he belonged to them.

INTERVIEWER: And was he a part of any type of club that had to do with the railway post office?

Max Wolf: No, no. No, not that I knew of.

INTERVIEWER: While your father was away, did you or your family ever associate with any of the clerks’ wives or families?

Max Wolf: I don’t understand the question.

INTERVIEWER: When your dad was away, did your family every associate with any of his co-workers’ families? Max Wolf: Oh, no, there weren’t anyone living close. Later, I met Christopher an older man from [indiscernible], but no, there was no association like that.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. When your father was in town, did your family ever keep in touch with any of the other clerks?

Max Wolf: No.


Max Wolf: No, no.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you did not like about your father’s job, such as him being away from home for long periods at a time or the hazards of his position?

Max Wolf: Well, it was just one of the things he accepted. I know that he -- we can tell when he had a bad week and he would rarely talk about it.

INTERVIEWER: And going back to the accident, I know that you said that he had seven wrecks. And could you just elaborate a little bit more on them and just tell me some of the stories about these wrecks?

Max Wolf: Yes. The one, I have some pictures of a wreck where the mail car is up in the air and the back truck is dropped and there’s mail actually coming out on the ground. Now, this was caused by a broken rail. Apparently, they didn’t have a signal. They did when I worked because if you had a broken rail, the engineer would get a signal and he would stop, but these guys would plow right through it. The two wrecks along Brokenstraw north of Warren and at least two more in the switching yards at Renovo where the deadheading engine would come back and slam into them, they were sitting on the side. Of course, when that rail came through, that was a broken rail when the rail telescopes through the -- actually through the ledge and up to the ceiling. That’s when Mercker, that was his second clerk’s name, Mercker, and he’s a historian himself. When I got a regular job on the Renovo and Erie, he lived at Cory and he came out just making his acquaintance and a wonderful man, very well-spoken and intelligent man, but it was so obvious why they called him “Fish-head Mercker”

[audio glitch]

INTERVIEWER: Okay. I know you were talking about an accident, the rail broken rail coming through the car. Max Wolf: Yes. That’s when Fish-head Mercker goes to the escape hatch. The mail car had a ledge where the letter case was and underneath it was about a 3x3 steel door that you could pull open and slide into the baggage end of the car. And this is where he dove. For some reason or other, he dove through that hole and went up in the other side. By the time the rail came right up through, and locked him and he couldn’t get back. But like I said, he’s a wonderful man. I wish I could have known him, got to know him better. But he only came out to the train once. That was in 1957. That’s when I was working. I had a regular job on the Renovo and Erie.

Let’s see. The collisions with the switcher engine, what was most devastation, he had a -- of course, it knocked the lights off the standards and dropped them but he hit his back and he went to Walter Reed and got a brace built for himself. He wore it for a while. He died up in here after that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think it was the result of the accident that he had?

Max Wolf: Well, it sure did debilitate him. He couldn’t -- if he wanted to retire on disability, of course it was during the war. And boy, that’s when I got working as a substitute, temporary substitute on the train in the terminal, first on the train ‘til next year and so another year later, another set of trains I worked at Christmas time. That’s another story.

INTERVIEWER: Now, did you ever hear of your father talking about anybody who went through a dangerous or bad situation?

Max Wolf: He told us one time of a vagrant who crawled. He must have, apparently crawled up between the mail car and the tender of the steam engine and he pulled out of Erie and somewhere north of Corry, he heard this banging on the door and of course, he was armed. He opened up the door and sure enough, this vagrant was almost froze to death. He got him back in the mail car and warmed him up and then when they got to Corry, which was about, oh, about 15, 20 miles, he got the railroad police pick him up.

INTERVIEWER: And did you ever hear of any other stories from him?

Max Wolf: There are stories had been a lot. I just can’t -- hard to remember. But this Mercker was a real buddy of his. They went through a lot together.

INTERVIEWER: And was his friend in any type of bad accident or situation? Max Wolf: I have the pieces I have to send, I’m going to send down to Nancy.


Max Wolf: And it shows where he was off for three weeks and of course, there was a discussion on the pay scale for -- that was after one of these couple of accidents. He was off for three weeks that time.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know if your father ever faced or witnessed any type of racial discrimination or hear of anybody who did?

Max Wolf: No, because there were no blacks working on the trains at that time. They started after Harry Truman declared that there’s no separation in the army and weeks after that, very few, very few came out on the trains so there wasn’t much opportunity for racial discrimination to be -- so I’d say no, I don’t think so.

INTERVIEWER: What was your father’s attitude towards the positions he occupied with the Railway Mail Service? Max Wolf: He was proud to be a mail clerk. He carried himself well and he spoke well of the service. In fact, he was a candidate for clerk-in-charge -- for chief clerk, not clerk-in-charge. It was called chief clerk of the Ninth Division -- Ninth -- yes, Ninth Division it was out of Harrisburg. But Mr. Strome [sounds like] beat him out. There’s politics all over at the mail service. You understand, at every railway postal route was authorized by Congress.

Now this route crossed several states that a certain number of clerks from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland would have states rights and you would have X number of jobs that could be assigned but you had to have the states’ rights. You could exchange but then probably the first or second year after I became regular, they abandoned that whole thing which was discriminatory really.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that he ever disliked about his position, anything that he complained about no matter how big or small?

Max Wolf: No, he would never say anything derogatory about the service he was doing. No. In fact, I’d say he was glad he raised his family, which was that was pretty good pay in those days.

INTERVIEWER: And what happened towards your father’s career? I know that he didn’t live until the discontinuation of the Railway Mail Service. Did he pass away while on the job, or?

Max Wolf: Yes. This was in 1944 November. He had a heart attack on the train and actually, they thought he died and they put him back in the stall and until they got to Williamsport, he stood up and went back to work. But apparently, he came home that night and I was 17. I drove to Sunbury, picked him up, we got him off the train and we stopped at the doctor’s office on the way home and the doctor says, “Report off work indefinitely.”  But he died within an hour, had a severe heart attack. At that time, I was scheduled to work with him on the Williamsport-Emporium train and on the 5th December, he had four sons in the service at that time. And of course, I was the fifth, which a year later, I was in the service too. But on December 5th, I went back to Williamsport and worked as a second clerk. I worked three weeks after he passed on.

INTERVIEWER: And just to kind of speculate a little bit, if your father had lived and continued to work until the discontinuation of the Railway Mail Service, what do you think his attitude would have been?

Max Wolf: Oh, very disappointed because the fact is there were trains being discontinued then already. The train he worked on was originally to Philly and Erie. Then it was reduced to Harrisburg to Erie and then a reduction into Williamsport to Erie, and then finally, Renovo to Emporium, Renovo to -- yes, Renovo to Emporium. So they were always reducing service and I’m pretty sure he’d be pretty upset. Most of the small lines were still in force in ’52 but they started to disappear quick.

INTERVIEWER: And then for the last question, is there anything else that you would like to share with the researchers about your father and the railway post office?

Max Wolf: Oh, I’m sending the pouch record that he actually kept up and a register receipt that was signed on -- his very last act was to register the mail to 2578, the connecting train, and the pouch record is there too. That’s complete and I wanted to talk about the weigh pouch. I don’t know if you ever heard of the weigh pouch.

INTERVIEWER: I have not.

Max Wolf: It’s a unique service that was -- I just checked this on this pouch record, a wait pouch from Kane, from Kane to Parker. This is the pouch that’s left off at every office where our messenger was still waiting and he would exchange the mail that was in that pouch and put mail for the weigh pouch and it was delivered to the next post office called a weigh pouch. It was a very unique service. I guess that’s about all. I really enjoyed reminiscing.

Oftentimes, I’d sit thinking maybe I should have said this or that because it was an interesting job.

INTERVIEWER: Were there any funny stories that he told you about his job?

Max Wolf: Pardon?

INTERVIEWER: Were there any funny stories that he told you about his job? Max Wolf: Oh yes. I don’t think I want to repeat them.

INTERVIEWER: Aww, why not? You should. You may never get a chance to say them again.

Max Wolf: Well, maybe I’ll just better let it go at that. But I sure enjoyed this. Like I said, it brings back a lot of memories. Occasionally, when I’m asleep or in slight dream, I’m back on the mail car. It’s funny to say but yes, I get there. But I never missed a train. Well, I appreciate talking to you.

INTERVIEWER: All right. And thank you again for talking with us. I really appreciate the information that you gave about your father and you are the first person I interviewed who was a railway post office clerk who talks about his father being a railway post office clerk so I’m really grateful.

Max Wolf: Yes. Well, his father was a veteran, a Civil War veteran.


Max Wolf: That takes us way back.

Max Wolf

Mr. Wolf, of Liverpool, Pennsylvania, worked as a substitute in 1952 in the Pittsburgh Terminal, transferring to the Harrisburg Terminal a year later. There he had assignments in the transfer office, and on the Allentown and Harrisburg Railway Post Office, and the Baltimore and Washington Railway Post Office. Mr. Wolf had several regular assignments as well. In 1956, he started out on the Renova and Erie run, and a year later transferred to the Baltimore and Washington run. He was transferred in 1966 to the New York and Pittsburgh line, which discontinued in 1967.

Max Wolf Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and the positions you occupied with the Railway Mail Service?

Max Wolf: Okay. My name is Max Wolf, a substitute clerk at Pittsburgh Terminal in 1952; substitute clerk District VI Harrisburg in 1953; and regular clerk, in 1955, Harrisburg Terminal; regular clerk, Renovo and Erie RPO, 1956; regular clerk, Buff and Washington RPO, 1958; 1966, Buff and Washington is removed and I transferred to the New York and Pitts. Now, prior to this, I worked as a temporary. I wanted to bring this out.  I worked in the very smallest RPO, which is a 15-footer, and the last train was Train 55, three 60-foot mail cars with a baggage car between them. So I went from the smallest to the largest.

INTERVIEWER: And you’ve already told me the rail lines that you worked on. Could you describe some of the locations that you traveled between?

Max Wolf: Well, the first regular clerk job I had was on the Renovo and Erie but this was Erie head out and of course, you get in Corry. Corry, Warren, Kane, Ridgway, Emporium, and then of course Renovo South that’s east bound. On that particular rain, I had 10 local exchanges one way and 11 in the other so we knew a lot of the local business. Yes, that’s called local exchange. You threw a pouch out and catch a pouch.

INTERVIEWER: And then could you name some of the cities that you went to?

Max Wolf: Yes. Westbound, it would have been Emporium. These are stops. St. Mary’s, Ridgway, Johnsonburg, Wilcox -- though Wilcox wasn’t a stop; that was an exchange -- Kane, Sheffield, Warren, Youngsville, Pittsfield, Garland, Spring Creek, Corry, Waterford, and then Erie. That one book I had shows the schedule for the Renovo and Erie, trains 581. It shows the local dispatch.

INTERVIEWER: And how long did you serve as a Railway Post Office clerk?

Max Wolf: From 1952 to 1967, 15 years.

INTERVIEWER: And what made you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?

Max Wolf: Coming out of the Army, I went to school to be a teacher and by the time I was ready to do my practice teaching, the Post Office put up a test for the Railway Mail Service and of course, at that time, teachers were being paid $1800 a year and the Post Office is offering $3700 a year so I guess it was -- and of course, my father being a mail clerk, I did learn to do some mail practice card distribution and stuff like that. I think it was more -- well, I just, well, I liked the trains. When I first started, we had all steam engines.

INTERVIEWER: And what types of jobs did you have on the rail cars?

Max Wolf: The second clerk, I would be the newspaper clerk. On the Buff and Washington, I was register clerk and Pennsylvania distributor, letter distributor. On New York and Pitts, it was Pennsylvania residue and register clerk again. I didn’t do much local service on the New York and Pitts, Buff and Washington either. Those were like express trains.  They didn’t do a lot of local business.  But the Renovo and Erie, we handled all their mail, third class, parcel post. It was a different line.

INTERVIEWER: And for any one of the positions that you just told me, could you walk me through a typical day, starting from when you would first get into work until you got off?

Max Wolf: Okay. Heading out of Washington, the first thing you do, of course, is you store your grip and vest the car. You start pouching, hang all your pouches of letters to the letter case headers because you had to carry your own headers because of the exchange in cars. They rarely got the same car two days in a row. So then I had letter headers. Of course, label all your pouches and your newspaper sacks.  And then of course, you start taking on mail. Both doors should be loaded, loading in both doors. Then the heavy -- occasionally, we get heavy dispatch, because the line in Washington, out of Washington, the Mint would print money for Canada and those were huge boxes of bills and of course, the register clerk is responsible for those. They come out from the station on railroad gondolas and they would load them in the baggage car because you couldn’t handle all the registers and the regular mails you got. Now, just prior before leaving, you would get mail continuously or in spurts until you get ready to leave but right before you left, they refill the doors for mail, doors and stalls with mail. That would be pouches and of course newspaper sacks. It was a great job.

INTERVIEWER: And was there any one job that you liked doing the most?

Max Wolf: Pouching, the pouching of the first-class mail because it had the -- you had to know what you were doing because when you threw a pack of letters into a pouch that was six, eight feet away, you better make sure that it was correct. And you’re in the center of things when you’re a pouch clerk. You picked out the working mail for the clerks on a lot of cases and of course, you tie it out and dispatched pouches at every stop and took on more mail. Time flew very fast. It wasn’t anything boring. It was -- I liked the job myself.

INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever disliked about any of your positions? And this can be something from a large complaint to a small thing that you just brushed off to the side.

Max Wolf: That would be hard to say.  Occasionally, we worked with people who were abrasive.  That was the only thing because most crews got along very good. But occasionally, you would run into two or three people who were very abrasive and that would upset everybody. You understand what I mean by abrasive?


Max Wolf: Yes, keep picking at each other. But it wasn’t that bad. The normal 60-foot mail car usually have 15 people in it and the 30-foot mail car had four or five or five or six at the very most because there wasn’t room at the 30-foot apartment car. And of course, the 15-foot, that was a one or two-man job.

INTERVIEWER: When you worked on the railways, do you remember what your starting salary was?

Max Wolf: The first year I worked as a substitute, I earned $8000 for the year, which, at that time, was quite a bit of money. Then as a regular clerk, a substitute works lots of extra time but as a regular clerk, it was in the $11,000 range per year, $12,000.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. And do you remember what your ending salary was as a Railway Post Office clerk?

Max Wolf: As a clerk, I was postmaster at Mansfield and that was $35, $37,000, postmaster at Mansfield, Pennsylvania.

INTERVIEWER: And at that point, were you still working on the railway?

Max Wolf: No, no. No, that was 1980. We were taken off the trains in ’67, ’66 really. INTERVIEWER: But at the end of your time on the train, do you remember what that salary was? Max Wolf: No, but it would have been probably $14,000, $14 or $15,000.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. And do you believe that this pay was fair for the amount of work that you had to do?

Max Wolf: I thought so. One advice given to me by an older clerk, he said, “We live within our means,” and I took him for his word. We don’t go buy lots of stuff we can’t afford. But he said, “Live within your means and things will go okay.” He was right.

INTERVIEWER: And what did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on trips?

Max Wolf: One complete change of work clothes and maybe a dress shirt, a clean shirt, and underwear. And of course, all my schemes and schedules. I had a terrific -- this was before ZIP code -- I had a terrific schedule for study by my requirements from Pennsylvania and New York, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan north bound but, of course, I always had a .38 caliber revolver because I worked the register. The register clerk or the paper clerk and the supervisor always were -- we were always, had to wear a gun. That was stuffed in one of the grips. And of course, in the wintertime, extra heavy sweaters and stuff. And of course, a light lunch. We managed to get lunch at the terminals to take with us. And of course, I made the coffee. I was the coffee brewer. On most the trains I worked on, I don’t know why, but they had a steam cooker and I could put raw coffee into the pot with water and put it on the cooker and within three minutes, it would be boiling in the steam cooker. And you took the pot off, poured cold water in the pot, and that would drop the grounds and that’s what we called railroad coffee.

INTERVIEWER: And what was the longest trip you ever worked?

Max Wolf: As a regular clerk, the time value of the trip or when we were severely delayed?

INTERVIEWER: We’ll go with the longest trip ever no matter what the circumstances.

Max Wolf: Okay. The trip from New York to Pittsburgh, we were rerouted north because of a train wreck and that day was 14 hours all total. And then of course, that didn’t give us -- that cut into our rest time before we had to head back to New York. But a delay like that is very boring. You can’t sleep and you don’t have any mail work because you’re just sitting there. That was the longest one, probably very close to 14 hours.

INTERVIEWER: And while you were a Railway Post Office clerk, did you have a family? Max Wolf: Yes, I did, had [indiscernible] two boys, two girls and of course a wife.

INTERVIEWER: And how did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?

Max Wolf: Well, it was just one of the things you did. The toughest thing is if you had to do something and didn’t get it done and you had to get on the train and go. But I have a very resilient wife. She managed things pretty good.

INTERVIEWER: And how did your family cope while you were away?

Max Wolf: I think they missed me. They say that they had a very dependable mother and she took good care of them.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railway?

Max Wolf: Some of the scariest one or the --

INTERVIEWER: The fondest?

Max Wolf: The fondest, oh my. When I was transferred to New York and Pitts, I was making extra trips. When you work with a whole new crew, you’re the stranger. You’re the one on the outside. And I think we were leaving Altoona and the lights were failed. The lights wouldn’t come back on so that the light failure is one of the worst things that can happen to you. And here’s everybody was sitting there and I was familiar with the way the electricity is produced in a mail car so I said to the foreman, I said, “Can I see what I can do about the lights?” He says, “Yes, go ahead and do anything you can.” Well, I was told how to activate the rheostat on the charging system. You got to use a ruler because it was heavy voltage and it held it down and bingo, the lights would come on. You had to hold it down until it magnetizes and holds. And that man said, that foreman says, “You sure are a worthy receptor, worthy -- I’m trying to think of the word -- worthy person for coming over on New York and Pitts,” the first time anyone ever said anything like that.

INTERVIEWER: And do you have any other fond memories of working on the railway?

Max Wolf: Well, I enjoyed all of it. In a doorway was a foreman, one time, we were standing there and I was waiting for the train to pull into the station and he says, this was Halifax, Pennsylvania, and this foreman said, “Well, I own this site here.” He lived there and I said, “Don’t you mean that house there?”  He says, “No, the whole block.” My gosh! That was pretty good. I liked that idea. Oh, when my friend sneezed out the door and he lost his plates both upper and lower and we had an ex-marine that just got out of the Marines and he said, “I’ll run back,” and we were stopping to Williamsport Station and he said, “I’ll run back and get them.” We went back and oh, probably two lengths of trains, sure enough, he found them and he got his teeth back.

INTERVIEWER: That’s pretty funny.

Max Wolf: Yes. And he was very thankful, oh yes.

INTERVIEWER: Do you still keep in touch with any of the former clerks?

Max Wolf: There are none living that I knew. There was -- the Buff and Washington had 54 clerks and 12 supervisors. That’s the whole organization. And I have not seen or talked to any of them for at least five years. They’re just not there.

INTERVIEWER: And I know that you said earlier that the Post Office gave you a revolver for your safety. Was there anything else that they ever issued you for safety or for your job?

Max Wolf: We were required to qualify with this revolver and when we were in Washington, we could go to the FBI station and be tested on your ability to shoot. We were equipped with Plexiglas eye goggles when we do the local catch and throw-off because of cinders and all kinds of debris. You got eye protection when you did do it when you’re the local clerk.

INTERVIEWER: Were there ever times of danger or times where you were put into a bad situation while on the railway?

Max Wolf: There were at least two times that it got your attention. We were westbound on 581 west of Emporium. We’re just coming into the St. Mary’s station when the whole front end of the mail car went up in the air. The air brakes came on and moved down with a thump. And the second clerk that was with me, he had been in several accidents.  He said, “We’re on the ties.  We’re on the ties.”  Then something went ka-wham again and we could hear the wheels hit the -- and we were running smooth. I said, “No, Mac, we are running clear.” But the engineer used the bunching brakes, that’s the independent brake, and stopped and we ran over the heavy leaf springs of the trucks, picked up the front of the mail car, and then when they dropped, we run over them with the back. That was scary because we were traveling pretty fast. Then the other time, we’re coming out of Williamsport.  The train man, the baggage man was coming up front and we were exchanging some mail and we hit this curve. I never heard this before. It made a frightening squeal through the rail, the wheel, and he said, “We’re on the flanges.” He grabbed the safety bar and so did I and we made it. We didn’t derail. But at the next stop, railroad, we got out and I saw him shaking his fist at the engineer for hitting that curve that fast. He says, “We’re on the flanges and the flanges are only an inch thick and that’s what keeps you on the rail.” But that’s -- oh, well, we hit trucks and derailed. The engine derailed one time and collapsed the rail underneath it. And one time, we just stopped barely in time. There’s a two-foot piece of rail broke and we were stopped just in the nick of time. That would have been a tragic thing. But normally, we just did what we had to do.

INTERVIEWER: And did you ever hear of anybody who experienced anything dangerous or put into a bad situation?

Max Wolf: Well, my Dad was in several real bad wrecks. That section from Kane to Erie, there were heavy steel iron ore cars and they had a lot of trouble with the tracks. He was in seven different accidents and the last one he had, he wore a steel brace for his back. And then of course, my friend, he had -- he was in the same wreck and he had a dislocated vertebrae or deteriorated vertebrae in his neck. But he still had a good attitude towards work though. He liked to do his job.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were a Railway Post Office clerk?

Max Wolf: One night coming into Williamsport from north, there was a cross burned on the yard and my friend, he was a black man. He says, “Wolf, would you get off and get the mailboxes for me at Williamsport?” He said, “I don’t want to get out of the car.” I said, “No trouble.  I’ll do that for ya.”  Apparently, he had some connection there at Williamsport and he didn’t want to get out of the car. But discrimination, nothing, not that I could recall. Everybody seemed to work together.

INTERVIEWER: And did you know of anybody who experienced racial discrimination while on the rail cars?

Max Wolf: No. No, I can’t say. We had several black crew members and they -- it was a different type of work, you know. It’s almost like what they say in the Marine Corps, esprit de corps. We all worked together.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organization, such as a union or club, that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?

Max Wolf: I joined the postal clerks’ union after I came off the railroad. I didn’t belong to the union when I was on the railroad. After I started to work in the post office, I joined the clerks’ union.

INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position?

Max Wolf: Well, every change of time that the crews would change, certain people liked certain crews and they would, of course, bid and if you’re, like I was, way down on the list, I was about 20 from the bottom of the list, you have to be ready to change your working habits and work with different crews. But it wasn’t that critical. I think I understand what the question was.

INTERVIEWER: Well, that was part of it but really, was there -- for the jobs that you did, was there anything that you would have wanted to go back and change?

Max Wolf: Oh yes.

INTERVIEWER: Like add air conditioning to the cars or --

Max Wolf: Oh yes, yes. When I worked on the Renovo and Erie, that was two weeks on and a week off and every other job on the Buff and Wash was a week on a week off and I even had some better layoffs. But working, my family was living in the Port Trevorton area and I was deadheading to Erie and I was away for two weeks and I wanted to change that. And finally, I just bid off the job and bid on the Buff and Wash, I bid I get transferred to the Buff and Wash for a better layoff. The best layoff I ever had was when we worked the Williamsport to Washington and returned, six on, nine off -- no, nine on, six off. Oh, I get that confused. Five on, nine off, five on, 16 off, that’s the way it is. Five days on, made five round trips, nine off. Five on, days on, and 16 off. That was a good job.

INTERVIEWER: That’s a lot of time off.

Max Wolf: Oh yes. But the most sleep you could get was four and a half hours between trips and by the end of the week, you’re not sure whether you were bored or punched because you were really numb. But I sure liked that 16 days off.

INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a Railway Post Office clerk?

Max Wolf: Oh, everything about that. The comradeship, the way we got along. We all worked together real hard. We helped everybody out, just get a five or 10-minute sitting down time and playing cards between stations.

INTERVIEWER: And for the last question, is there any other information or stories that you would like to share with researchers about your experience or position with the Railway Post Office?

Max Wolf: What I would like to see is, I think I said to the Keystoner Magazine where it shows the inception of all the Railway Post Offices from the very first to the last, I would like to see a map of that expanded on a yearly basis showing all the RPOs and then in 1950, show the ones that were taken off and reduced, removed. That would be a real, something interesting because the map would show the United States being covered with Railway Post Office lines and then in 1950, reduced to mostly the main trunk lines.

Richard Wood

In 1948, Mr. Wood began as a substitute for the Railway Mail Service until his first regular assignment in 1951. He ran between St. Albans and Boston from 1951 until 1953, and then the Newport and Springfield line from Newport and Springfield until 1969. Mr. Wood also worked on the Highway Post Office on the Newport and Springfield run.

Richard Wood (RW) Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to work for the Railway Mail Service?

RW: Well, when I was a little kid, about 10 years old I saw some guys working on a train in the mail car and I thought, gee that’d make a good thing to do. So, I always remembered that. And after I got out of the army in WWII I went and took the test.

INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about your schedule on the trains, the hours you worked and where you went?

RW: Yeah, after, first I was a sub for three years, they called it a substitute right, worked on all the different trains. Then I made regular and I ran from Boston to Montreal for three years. But then I was, by seniority, I lost that job, and the rest of my time I ran from Springfield, Mass. to either White River, Vermont, or Newport, Vermont.

INTERVIEWER: Was it a job that you liked very much?

RW: They had one job that ran out of White River Junction, it was a day job, and it was what they called a 5 and 9. You worked 5 days and had 9 days off. So I always had my eye on that job, and I couldn’t ever get it because somebody else always took it ahead of me, by seniority, until 1969. I finally bid that job off and got it. Two months later, they took the train off [laughs]. So that was the end of that.

INTERVIEWER: What was your favorite part about working for the Railway Mail Service?

RW: Oh, travel and adventure.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anything you did not like about it?

RW: Well, there was a lot of studying to do. You had to study schemes and schedules, that was tedious, I would say. You did it on your time off at home. To me, that was the worst part of it, having to study them exams, for those exams. You’d have to take ‘em twice a year, you know.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any sort of danger?

RW: Well, I was in a wreck a couple of times. Once, we were, we went sideways in a steel bridge going over a river, and tipped over on our side, skidded up the track like that. And another time, some railroad guys threw the wrong switch and we went right into a side and then hit a freight train. And, that was kind of… but I didn’t get really hurt. One guy got hurt pretty bad, he got tangled up in the racks inside the mail car and broke his arm, but other than that nothing too bad. Oh, and I was in another one! It was a small, one man job between, this was back when I was a sub, it was between, let’s see, Montpelier, Vermont, and Wells River, Vermont. Just a short run, a one man job. But anyway we went off the track and tipped over, and we had just picked up, in the baggage car, a load of cottage cheese, filled the baggage car right full of cottage cheese, from Cabot Creamery. And in order to get out after the train tipped over, I couldn’t get out the door, I had to crawl through that car, with the cottage cheese, and the cottage cheese had all spilled, I had to practically swim through cottage cheese to get out of there. That was a bad accident. We hit a car, that’s why we went off the track, killed two guys, and then there was another guy badly hurt on the train.

Elvin Woolston

Mr. Woolston started as a substitute out of Kansas City, Missouri, running on the Kansas City and Memphis line in 1957. He worked for the Railway Mail service until 1968.

Elvin Woolston (EW) Interview Transcript

INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to work for the Railway Mail Service?

EW: Well, you get plenty of time? I, well I was in, I’m a World War II veteran, I’m 83 years old, and getting close to 84, but anyway, I was in the Philippines, and I was over there when the war was over, and of course we were getting ready to invade Japan, but they dropped the bombs and they didn’t do it. Well, they sent me up to Clarkfield, which is north of Manila, for reassignment. So since I been, I graduated high school at 16, so I was, I went, I decided to be an agriculture teacher at 17, but anyway, we thought the war was going to be over in 6 months but it wasn’t. But anyway, they thought that since I’d gone to college already I oughta know how to read and write, so I was put in the 12th base post office in Manila during World War II, that’s how it started out. Then when I was discharged and come on home, why I farmed with my father a while and then my kid brother and I got in the oil business, so when I was in the oil business I had a friend that was a Railway Mail clerk. And he asked me he says, my nickname’s Wooly, and he says, Wooly how’d you like the mail service when you was in the army? I said, oh it was great… he said why don’t you take the test and be a Railway Mail clerk. And I said, I believe I will do it. I said I’d like that. So I took the test, passed the test and got in the Railway Mail. And like I said, to me those were the glory days of my, I mean I’m sad to this day that they have taken off the Railway Mail trains. And, but anyway that’s how I got in the Railway Mail. After working with the mail in the army of course, it was quite different what I worked in the army and what I worked in the trains. And of course the trains and the stationary organizations, they’re similar but they’re not alike either. Railway Mail was, it was absolutely different. Yeah, it was absolutely different. But that’s how I got into it, my friend asked me, he said if you like it why don’t you be a Railway Mail clerk, and I thought that would be a good idea and I was happy I did.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember, I don’t know if you remember your first assignment, your first run?

EW: Well I made my first run. Now, see I was assigned out of Kansas City, so when we first started, and you’d start as a substitute. So the first, you started working, well what was called the fourth floor in the Kansas City Post Office, and so you started working up there and then when they got you the roster, if they had an emergency run before they got you settled on running certain trips all the time, why they’d call you out of the fourth floor and let you go. So the first trip I made, I made on the KC and Memphis, from Kansas City to Memphis, Tennessee. And, so that was, that was breaking me in, and so I mean, you work hard, you had to work hard to keep up. But when you’re green and just learning you have to work twice as hard because you got to get something done, you didn’t know what you was doing. So, but anyway that was the first trip I made, was the KC and Memphis. And, it was, oh, it was around, I think it was 488 miles, and the one, the, that was a Frisco line, and they had a morning train out of Kansas City and they had an evening train out of Kansas City, and most of the time I caught the evening train and you went all the way to Memphis and back on the evening train. Now the day train you split crews at Springfield, Missouri. So you’d get on in the morning and work down to Springfield, Missouri and then catch a return train back to Kansas City on that. But on the night train you went all the way and came on the same train back. And without a doubt it was a good workout. And of course you worked all night both ways, basically. But you learned to stay awake, you know. And of course if you’re busy, if you’re busy, why you kind of stay awake anyway. But the atmosphere, the atmosphere on the Railway Mail is so different than the stationary organization. Yeah, it’s quite different. But I liked it, it was great. And I felt we were doing a great job. And, well, like I said, the intermediate mail probably took, took the beating on time and getting delivered. Now, you can’t argue against air traffic, I mean if you’re coming into Kansas City, and of course we always got a lot of California mail, why, of course at that time, why we give it to the Santa Fe that was going right on out, and then there was, at the end of the line going from Kansas City clear out to California, why you had about 3 different crews that worked it going that far, and the last crew would work Kansas City, would work Los Angeles mail, and work it out to carriers, so it was ready to go when it got out there. But when they took ‘em all off, why they flew it, flying all of it out there but the intermediate mail like coming in to Kansas City, mail going to Kansas and to Iowa and some of those others, they got there quicker by train than it did by air. Because it just went right off of one train right onto another and they went right on up. But, anyway, it was a great vocation, it really was.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any other stories about the Railway Mail Service? We’re looking for anything funny that may have happened or something unusual?

EW: Oh, they, on the first trip I made where you delivered mail on the fly and this and that and the other, the first thing they said, said now Wooly, doesn’t make any difference what kind of mistake you made, it has already been made. So they said, so don’t try to make any errors because they already been made. And of course, well every time you pick up a piece of mail, you can make an error if you get that one piece of mail wrong. And oh, I’d have to think about it, we always had funny stuff going on, you know. But, I’d have to think a little more about it, and so, I mean, I remembered that from the word go, and of course, you’d get tickled at the conversations of some people. When they was in trouble or this or that or the other. Of course, a few would really, would say a little profanity, but most of them did not. And, so there was one fella, one fella working the side case on that KC and Memphis. If he, something happened wrong, he would say “Gooberdust!” I mean, you had funny stuff like that going on all the time. But, he wouldn’t say any bad words at all. He’d, but if things was going wrong, why he’d say “Gooberdust!” [laughs] And you know what gooberdust is I guess, that’s peanut dust! Yeah, and oh… let’s see if I could think a little… if I had known you was gonna call I could’ve thought back on it, but of course like I said, I’m about 84 now, so some of that short term memory gets lost, some of that long term memory gets lost too. Yes. But, all I can say, those were, as far as I’m concerned those was my glory days, and of course I got worked quite a bit down here in Harrison, I was foreman of the mail, and then finally I was postmaster over at Alpena, where I finished up my time, course, I didn’t, when they took off all the trains I did not have quite enough time to retire. So, I said well, if you’re going to move me, you’re going to move me south. I was born and raised in Northwest Missouri, where, between Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri, down in the Missouri River Bottoms, which is, it gets real cold there. And of course we just recently had an ice storm through here, which was not any picnic. But, normally through here the winter’s never bad. In fact, I’ve been down here over 40 years now. You know that’s one reason I can’t remember all the things that happened, and on the trains. And, of course, putting mail off and on on the fly, that was always quite an experience. And some of those, some of those trains, well I guess Santa Fe running out across Kansas, it was nothing for them to run 100 miles an hour, but, catcher pouch took quite a beating when you’re traveling that fast, and I know I had one trip as a substitute on what we called the Valley, that was the Burlington going from Kansas City to Omaha, and we was coming back and they was moving and boy, I got the assignment of a paper run, and that was catching the pouches, and boy, we was traveling, must’ve been doing 100 miles an hour easy, but anyway, I caught the pouch and one end of it busted loose, so it was flying like a snowstorm there for a little bit. Of course, the messenger, that was the poor guy, the messenger had to wait to see that you got the pouch and got it into mail car, and of course whenever one busted like that they had to pick up all that, take it back to the… and of course you had to put it on the record that you busted the catcher pouch, and but, all in all, I don’t know about other places, but I know on the trains I ran on, we did a good job and we worked hard and got the mail service through to where it’s supposed to be going. And that always made me feel real good. And… but, I know that I can think of a lot of comical things if I just had time to, to just think them over and all this that and the other. But, no, it was a great life to be a Railway Mail clerk. And I tell people now, I said if you could qualify to be a Railway Mail clerk, you’d love it more than you do on this regular mail service. And, I hope I’m telling you things that is not too routine, or this or that or the other, but I welcome you anytime you want to call, and to find out anything. See, I was president of the Railway Mail Service in Kansas City and of course we still have a newspaper come out called the “Transit News,” and oh, boys lots of times are telling about the old times they had, the old stories and all that, so... But anyway, it was a great life. You worked hard, but it was a great life.