Railway Post Office

According to George Ehret, the hardest part was learning exactly where the cranes holding the bags of mail were. "You're going 50, 60, 70 miles per hour," he says, "usually at night. It was tough for a new guy to know when to put the catcher arm up."
Ehret, who retired from the Sacramento Post Office in 1982, began his postal career with the Railway Mail Service in 1946, right after he got out of the Coast Guard. His was the last generation of workers to serve on the Railway Post Offices, or "RPOs," as they were called.

The beginnings of the postal rail service are rooted in over 150 years of American history. In the early 19th century it was obvious to many that the mail could be moved faster and more efficiently by rail than by stagecoach. In 1837, mail was being carried on 974 of the 1497 miles of railroad track in the U.S., almost all of it in the East. But it was not until 1864 that the timesaving potential of rail service began to be fully exploited. William A. Davis, an assistant postmaster in St. Joseph, Missouri, modified a baggage car to enable his clerks to transport, sort, bundle, and dispatch the mail while the train was moving from one stop to another. George B. Armstrong- the "Father of the Railway Mail Service" skillfully implemented this idea on a national scale. When in 1869 Armstrong adopted the Ward Catcher System, permitting the snatching of mailbags "on the fly," the Railway Mail Service was ready to revolutionize mail transport in this country. The transcontinental rail line had just been completed. Special trains soon would be traveling coast-to-coast in under five days. The RPO became the backbone of American postal service, and would remain so until shortly after World War II.

This was exceedingly dangerous work, especially in the early days. While the Post Office Department supplied clerks and equipment, the RPO cars were owned and operated by the individual railroads. These cars were usually flimsy wooden contraptions that offered the clerks inside no protection in case of an accident.

Between 1876 and 1905 there were thousands of accidents resulting in many deaths and many more injuries. Most clerks were fatalistic about their exposure to danger. "A wreck," said one, "is usually caused by one train trying to pass another on the same track. It has never been done successfully... but the railroads keep right on trying." There was also the problem of train robbers, such as the infamous "Wild Bunch," who used dynamite to disable trains and blow the doors off baggage cars. Mail trains loaded with registered mail and cash payrolls were irresistible targets. Railway postal workers were issued snub-nosed .38 caliber revolvers, though many never bothered to practice with these notoriously inaccurate "peashooters." During the Depression, and at other times when extremely valuable items were being carried, clerks were issued submachine guns.

George Ehret remembers packing a .38 on his hip as he worked. "They actually gave us time to practice, too," he said. "Never had to use it, though."

Ehret estimates that there were about 30 Railway Mail Service employees working in the Sacramento area at the time he hired on in 1946. He was assigned to the Sacramento-Fresno line, and also worked on a shorter line to Tracy. His description of a work shift paints a vivid picture of life aboard the RPO.

The crew reported to the Sacramento downtown train terminal at four in the afternoon. They did various kinds of work around the station and in the RPO cars until about eight, when the train left the station for Fresno. As they traveled through the night they used the catcher arm to hook sacks of mail suspended on the trackside cranes placed near the stations. They also threw sacks of sorted mail back down to the station platform. "We tried to sort the mail from the last station right away," says Ehret, "because there might be letters in there for the next station."

Trying to maneuver the catcher arm while the train was rocketing through the night took some experience.

"The catcher was this big iron hook that you raised into position with a wooden handle," recalls Ehret. "But you didn't want to do it too soon or you might catch something you didn't want-like a bridge. And if you didn't put it out in time, well, then you miss the sack. They didn't like that. Get ja demerit for that."

There could be problems getting the mail off the train as well. The roadbed beside the Chowchilla Station, for example, had a peculiar slant to it, "right back toward the rails," recalls Ehret. "Sometimes if we had a real heavy number one or number three sack it wouldn't always make up over the top of that slant, and then the bags would come rolling right back down to the train. What a mess!"

Finally the train would roll into Fresno around 11:30 p.m. There they'd offload any sacks destined for points further south. About an hour later the train from Southern California would pull in, and Ehret and his co-workers would begin breaking down the mail destined for the Sacramento area. By 1:00 a.m. they were tumbling again, headed back for Sacramento, sorting mail and tossing sacks down to the stations as they returned.

After a day off they would work the "short run" to Tracy to meet the train coming up from Los Angeles, snatching and throwing bags at every station along the way. They would also make connections at Lathrop with the train coming in from San Francisco. The run to Tracy went through Merced, which, according to Ehret could be "a pain in the you-know what during the summer season. You get these people coming out of Yosemite wit all their little souvenirs and gadgets and doo-dads they're wanting to mail home. Sorting a sack full of that stuff could make you crazy."

After completing the "short run" the crew would get three consecutive days off, before it was time to report for the Sacramento-Fresno run again. In 1955 Railway Mail Service to Sacramento was discontinued. Many of the employees, including Ehret, went straight into the new Highway Mail Service doing much the same work out of trucks. By 1968 that too was discontinued, and Ehret transferred into the Sacramento Post Office, where he worked until he retired. A beautifully restored, turn-of-the-century RPO car may be seen at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.