For 113 years, since its establishment by the Post Office Department in 1864, during the Civil War, the Railway Mail Service delivered mail that was sorted en route by postal clerks.
During its tenure, the Fast Mail, which traveled over the nation’s various railroads, managed to work its way into the country’s imagination, folklore and songbook.
Mail by rail wasn’t only destined for the nation’s large cities, but also for towns and rural villages where the mail that had been sorted en route was thrown off moving trains in pouches or picked up, as railroaders say, “On the fly,” as the train did not stop, from line-side mail cranes which held a pouch of “outgoing” mail.
At its apogee in 1915, some 20,000 postal clerks worked aboard 4,000 Railway Post Office (RPO) cars that traversed more than 200,000 miles of track.
With competition from highway and airlines, the decline had started to set in, and by 1967, the Post Office eliminated many routes, as railroads, which carried the RPO cars in their passenger trains, dropped them because of low ridership and mounting financial losses.
By 1977, the “New York & Washington” route, with a daily northbound and southbound mail-only train — no passengers were carried — were the last such trains operating in the country.
The final run for the trains was scheduled for June 30, 1977, with the New York train, No. 4, departing Washington’s Union Station at 10 p.m. — which stopped at Baltimore around 11 p.m. — while its sister left New York’s Pennsylvania Station at 11:40 p.m.
Emotional mail clerks on both trains stood by open doors waiting to salute their comrades for the last time, as they passed at 1:02 a.m. at Frankford Junction, north of Philadelphia, in a hail of mournful locomotive whistles.
Train No. 4 arrived in the bowels of Pennsylvania Station on time at 2:50 a.m., with its counterpart ending its run at Union Station a little after 3 a.m.
The necessity and romance of such trains had now passed into the nation’s history.