Riding aboard the last mail train


You get lucky in this line of work once in a while.

Such was the case 29 years ago nearly to the day, when Jesse E. Glasgow Jr., The Sun's financial editor who died last week, asked me if I'd like to cover the final northbound run of the U.S. Postal Service's mail train that operated between Washington and New York.

After more than a century, the postal service was ringing down the curtain on its Railway Mail Service that began operating in 1864.

Jesse knew I had a deep interest in railroading and thought it would be something that I'd enjoy covering.

He was right. He didn't have to ask twice.

Also, there was something else going on here, but I'll get to that a little later.

Jesse, a gentle and quiet Southerner, was born in Monroe, N.C., the son of a Seaboard Air Line Railroad freight brakeman, and after working on newspapers in North Carolina and Virginia, arrived in the city room of The Sun in 1953.

He was a police reporter and later covered City Hall before being promoted to financial editor in 1960, at a time when the nation's railroad industry was going through great change.

I spent the other afternoon looking at his clips, now on microfilm, in The Sun's library, and was impressed at his prodigious output and detailed reporting on railroads and the men who controlled them.

This was the era of merger talks between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, and the takeover of the venerable Baltimore & Ohio Railroad by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.

The collapse of Penn-Central and the birth of Amtrak would come in a few years, along with Conrail, which was forged from the wreckage of several Northeastern railroads, all duly reported in depth by Jesse.

His formidable counterpart on The Evening Sun was John Thomas Ward, whose career on The Sun began in 1923. For 28 years, until retiring in 1979, he was the evening paper's financial editor.

Both were friendly competitors and both shared a reputation for accurate and detailed coverage of the railroad business.

In 1977, on a cold and dreary late February afternoon, I joined Jesse and John at Mount Clare, to attend the 150th anniversary dinner marking the founding of the B&O;, the nation's first common-carrier railroad, in 1827.

However, before going into the museum for the festivities, I recall observing Jesse, seemingly transfixed, watching the Best Friend of Charleston, a replica of an 1830s steam engine, chug back and forth on a stretch of track while its whistle pierced the chilled night air.

Once inside, I saw how heartily both men were greeted by rail presidents, industry executives, and federal, state and local officials, who had arrived aboard a special Amtrak train that brought them from Washington right up to the museum's front door.

Among them reaching to shake their hands and have a word was the legendary industrialist and statesman Cyrus Eaton, who was 94.

The white-haired man who was dressed in a dark, gray double-breasted suit, had been president and chief executive officer of the C&O; and a founder of the Chessie System and Republic Steel Co.

In the horde of reporters that swarmed over the museum that evening, I was so impressed that Jesse and John were being so fussed over. They certainly deserved it, I thought.

Jesse had another lifelong passion, and that was collecting and writing about stamps. For years, he had written a regular stamp column in The Sunday Sun under the nom de plume of James Gasque.

"James Gasque was a family of one of our Huguenot ancestors who came from Normandy and settled in Marion, S.C.," said a son, Jeffrey D. Glasgow, in a telephone interview the other day.

Before I left the office that June day 29 years ago, Jesse summoned me to his desk, where he wished me well and advised me to get the correct time, if possible, when the last southbound mail train passed its northbound cousin, somewhere near Philadelphia.

He wanted to have that fact recorded for postal history, noting the end of the Railway Mail Service that once operated 1,500 routes requiring 4,000 mail cars and 30,000 employees.

He also gave me several self-addressed stamped envelopes. He asked, in his polite way, that I have the postal clerks stamp them with the special cachet announcing the end of service and, of course, the usual postmark used on mail shipped by rail: "N.Y. & WASH. TR 4 JUN 30 1977 R.P.O."

So, on a blistering, hot and muggy June 30, 1977, Bill Mortimer, a Sun photographer, drove me over to Washington's Union Station.

There sitting on Track 12 was a four-car mail train, Train No. 4, with its crew of 14 postal clerks who worked the mail en route with drop-offs in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., before arriving in Pennsylvania Station, New York.

That evening, a coach had been added for the convenience of reporters. Historically speaking, Train No. 4 was the remnant of the old Penn Texas, a passenger train that once connected New York with Mexico City, but it had stopped carrying passengers with the arrival of Amtrak in 1971.

I was busy interviewing a postal worker as we began swaying and squealing through the switches of Philadelphia's Race Street yard, just outside 30th Street Station, when I remembered Jessie's request to record the time of the passing trains.

This had suddenly became a problem, as the postal clerks crammed around the open mail car doors, and I fought to find a place so I could at least see the southbound. I finally got a spot near an open door as the muggy warm air swirled in with the sounds of the train.

As we rounded a reverse curve near Frankford Junction, the yellowish headlight of the southbound could be seen approaching in the distance.

The engineers on the GG-1 electric locomotives pulling the two trains yanked hard on their whistle chords in a mournful salute, as postal workers waved and shouted greetings and farewells to their comrades.

I glanced at my watch.

It was 1:02 a.m.

And time was running out for the postal clerks, whose careers were to come to an end in several hours on a subterranean platform in New York's Penn Station.

There they turned over to postal officials their silver RPO badges they had worn for decades, and the transfer clerks handed in the .38-caliber revolvers strapped to their hips, which they used to discourage train robbers.

It was 2:50 a.m. when Train 4 came to a stop in New York and the mail was unloaded. The Railway Mail Service was now officially a part of history.

Jesse got not one but two recorded times and something in his mailbox.

On Friday morning, July 1, Jesse went to get the mail at his home on Wilmslow Road in Roland Park. To his surprise, there were the envelopes I had dutifully posted not many hours before.


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