Railway Mail Service

Topical Reference Page
Railway Mail Service clerks sorting mail in a rail car

For more than a century, the core of America’s postal system was the Railway Mail Service. The system of train lines that crisscrossed the nation carried passengers and mail in and out of large cities and small towns. The Railway Mail Service went a step further in service than passenger trains, providing mail delivery and pick-up to small towns where trains did not even stop. The service relied on partnerships with America’s railway companies and the dedication and efforts of the service’s Railway Post Office clerks. From its beginnings in the midst of the Civil War to its slow decline after World War II and the service’s last run in 1977, the history of America’s Railway Mail Service is one that was central to America’s postal history.

Glossary: Railway Mail Service

Railway Mail Service clerks posing with Owney the dog in front of a railcar.
From the start of the Railway Mail Service in America in 1832, postal clerks who rode with the mail did so under life-threatening conditions. Ever present were the dual dangers of robberies and wrecks.
Object Spotlight

Three brothers stole this blasting machine and dynamite from the Oregon City Construction Company and used it to perpetrate the robbery of a mail train on October 11, 1923.

Glossary terms from "A" to "Z" related to stamp collecting and postal operations.
July 30, 1993 - Permanent

The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. The National Postal Museum re-created a railway mail train in its Atrium. The interior fixtures is from a de-commissioned mail car. The exterior portion of the Railway Post Office train was created by Smithsonian artisans.

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The Railway Mail Service began exchanging mail “on-the-fly” in 1869. This system of mail cranes made it unnecessary for trains to stop at every town to load and unload mail.

illustration of a rail engine with Railway Post Office
A Railway Post Office {RPO} was a special mail car on a train. From the 1860s until the 1950s, most intercity mail in the U.S. was postmarked and sorted by hand en route in these cars.
Chicago & North West railroad mail car model
Beginning in 1832 train cars were used to carry the mail, and then in 1864 postal officials inaugurated...
Object Spotlight

Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. A critical component of the service was the mail exchange made between moving trains and small towns.

railway clerks loading mail on the train
In 1869, special agents (i.e., inspectors) began supervising the mail and clerks on the new Railway Mail Service (RMS) cars. Inspectors were responsible for ensuring that every aspect of the Railway Mail Service was functioning at its highest and most secure level, including moving the mail on and off the trains.

Sorting mail on moving trains was one of the postal service’s great innovations. After the Civil War, Post Office officials worked to decentralize operations, concentrating on the growing volume of mail carried on the nation’s rail lines.

Daylight train stamp depicting a locomotive pulling train cars through countryside
Just for Kids! Educators share museum objects and a children’s book that offer a look at some fascinating facts about trains, railroads, and postal history.


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Advertisement for the New York Central Railroad

The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. Railway mail service began in 1832, but grew slowly until the Civil War. In 1862, mail was sorted en route, as a train moved between two points. The idea proved to be exceptionally successful, and as the postal service decentralized its operations, it concentrated on sorting much of the growing volume of mail while it was being carried on the nation's rail lines.