RAILWAY POST OFFICE SERVICE
on
THE LONG ISLAND RAIL ROAD

RAILWAY MAIL SERVICE - A Brief History

At least three decades before the Pony Express galloped into postal history, the "Iron Horse" made a formal appearance. The Post Office Department recognized the value of this new mode of transportation for mail as early as November 30, 1832, when the stage contractors on a route from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were granted an allowance of $400 per year "for carrying the mail on the railroad as far as West Chester (30 miles) from December 5, 1832." 

After passage of the Act of July 7, 1838, designating all railroads in the United States as post routes, mail service by railroad increased rapidly. 

At this time, mail was sorted in distributing post offices. The only mail sent to the agents on the railroad lines was that intended for dispatch to offices along each route. The route agents opened the pouches from the local offices, separated the mail for other local points on the line for inclusion in the pouches for those offices, and sent the balance into the distributing post offices for further sorting.

Gradually, the clerks began to make up mail for connecting lines, as well as local offices, and the idea of distributing all transit mail on the cars slowly evolved. 

By 1930, more than 10,000 trains were used to move the mail into every city, town, and village in the United States. Following passage of the Transportation Act of 1958, mail carrying passenger trains declined rapidly. By 1965, only 130 trains carried mail; by 1970, the railroads carried virtually no First-Class Mail. On April 30, 1371, the Post Office Department terminated seven of the eight remaining routes. The lone, surviving railway post office ran between New York and Washington, D.C., and made its last run on June 30,1377. Information courtesy of the United States Postal Service

Button-Railway-Mail-Svc-Post-Office-Dept.jpg (54794 bytes)The Long Island Rail Road Company, chartered in April, 1834 and with its Main Line opening all the way east to Greenport in 1844, began carrying mail from the very beginning of its origins in the 1830s.

Carrying the mail by rail was originally a very lucrative venture and railroads as well as trolley lines eventually all competed to win these government contracts. Another milestone was the establishment of the Railway Mail Service in 1864 which standardized a lot of the mail carrying.

Seeing that the alternative back then in the early days of mail carrying was horse and rider or horse and wagon over unpaved dirt roads, trails, paths or old wooden planked turnpikes, mail-via-rail proved to be a more efficient and quicker means of transporting the mail.

As the mail service handled by the railroads and trolley lines began to grow, special cars were constructed to not only carry the mail, but to be able to sort the mail by destination so that upon arrival at a terminal, the mail would be sorted and bagged and sent on its continued destination.

Shown here is a J. G. Brill builder’s photo of trolley car #5 built for the Brooklyn City Railroad in 1895.  It has half passenger seating and half mail handling/carrying space and the U.S. Postal Service logo of letter carrier on horseback has been painted on the side of the car. (George E. Votava collection)

This is a close-up of the U. S. Post Office Department (POD) logo painted on the side of RPO trolley car #5 shown above.  This logo remained in force in one form or another until the advent of the Bald Eagle as the newer adopted logo in the early 1970s.  Notice the mail slot in the side of the car below the logo and to the right of the car number . . . . more on that further on in this article. (George E. Votava collection)

The railroads began to purchase cars from railroad car manufacturers designed specifically for this service.  Such cars were referred to as Railway Post Office (RPO) cars and on the LIRR there were different types of cars for mail service. 

The cars for which I have photographic record in my archive are of all steel construction and those are which will be depicted in this vignette.

Some of the steel cars were ½ mail car and ½ express car and the mail end would be stenciled “Railway Post Office” and the express end would be stenciled “Railway Express Agency” or whatever express company was in force at the time (Adams Express, American Railway Express, Railway Express Agency).  The mail compartments on board were 30’ in length.

Some cars were built as baggage cars to which mail compartments were added by the LIRR itself over the years then said compartments were removed when they were no longer needed.

There were RPO cars in both MU (multiple unit) electric service and in steam/ diesel service.

The steam/diesel service cars which had compartments added bore the class of BM60:  “B” meaning “Baggage” and “M” meaning “Mail” and the 60 being the length of the car in feet.

Other classes which were equipped with 30’ postal compartments were BM62, BM62A and BM62B.

Passenger Car 334 and Wooden RPO Car-Storage Yard-Richmond Hill-View SW - 09-1913 (Keller).jpg (114834 bytes)
P54A steam car #334 is seen here coupled to a wooden RPO car in the Richmond Hill Storage Yard.  #334 was built by American Car and Foundry in 1911. View is southwest looking towards Morris Park Shops in September, 1913. The paint job still looks good after two years. (Dave Keller archive)

Here is RPO car #738 photographed at the Long Island City passenger yard on May 14, 1949.  The right half of the car is the RPO portion and the left half of the car is the Railway Express Agency portion.  Notice the security bars on the RPO windows. (George E. Votava photo)

The same car, #738, is shown here at Oyster Bay , taken on May 6, 1951, only viewed from the opposite angle.  The car is sporting terrific kerosene marker lamps and the old water tower is visible behind the car.  It is still in the Pennsylvania Railroad Tuscan Red color scheme with gold Dulux lettering. (George E. Votava photo)

RPO car #737 has been photographed at the storage yard in Richmond Hill on August 3, 1958.  It is in the grey color scheme with black roof.  The larger marker lamp above the door opening is a carry over from the aftermath of the horrible rear-end collision at Richmond Hill on Thanksgiving Evening, November, 1950 which resulted in many deaths and caused the LIRR to adopt extremely large rear marker lamps. (George E. Votava photo)  

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        MU Railway Express Agency car #4212 and Railway Post Office car #4209 are coupled as a two-car "mail/express train" and as such is laying up in the Johnson Ave. Yard in Jamaica in April, 1962.  The yard was located south and slightly west of the Jamaica station tracks and near the Dunton Electric Car Shops.  Nearby was the LIRR's freight station.  This view is looking west. (Brad Stiles photo, Dave Keller archive)

RPO car #737 is seen again here at Port Jefferson in September, 1963, only it has been renumbered #7737 in the modernization program and has been assigned modernization #487.  The car is back to smaller, electric marker lamps. (George E. Votava photo)

RPO car #7751 is shown here at the temporary station facilities at Babylon on September 28, 1963. It is either awaiting an eastbound diesel or a westbound MU train.  Built in 1914 by Barney & Smith, it ran on the Boston & Maine Railroad and was later acquired by the LIRR.  It was classed BM60C  (Photographer unidentified)

BM62 car #7743 was specifically assigned to the New York and Patchogue Railway Post Office run, operating on MU trains west of Babylon and behind Rail Diesel Cars (BUDD RDCs) east of Babylon.  This car was unique in that it had electric and steam heat as well as a small kerosene heater for when in service behind the RDCs.

BUDD Rail Diesel Cars (RDC) 1 and 2, #s 3121, 3101, coupled are seen in Patchogue-Babylon “Scoot” service pulling the RPO car #7743 from Babylon eastbound approaching the River Avenue crossing in Patchogue on April 6, 1963  (William Lichtenstern photo) 

Pulling this mail car trailer (as well as the occasionally class P54 passenger trailer) by the BUDD RDCs caused the warranty of the Rail Diesel Cars to be voided by the BUDD Company.

          Here is RPO car #7743 after it has been dropped off at Patchogue by the RDCs pulling the “Scoot” from Babylon shown above on April 6, 1963.  The doors are open and the postal workers are awaiting the mail from the Patchogue Post Office to be delivered so it can be loaded on board.  This car, a product of American Car & Foundry, was built in 1911 and was classed BM62.  Its original road number was 743 but after its modernization it was renumbered to 7743 and assigned modernization number 65, which is visible in the circle at the far end of the car.  (William Lichtenstern photo)



          Unlike the other RPO cars depicted below, the platform-accessible mail slot is located in the center of the car, slightly above and to the right of the road number as can be seen here in this zoomed-in image of the above car. If you look at the photo above of car 7751 at Babylon , you’ll see that its mail slot is located slightly above and to the LEFT of the road number.  MU RPO #1382 depicted further on shows the mail slot dead-center of the car.  Explanation of the mail slot follows shortly.

RPO cars in third rail, electric MU territory were classed MBM62 and MPBM54.  The first “M” stood for “Motor” meaning they were electric powered units, used to pull the train with motorman in the cab.  The “P” meant the car carried passengers, the “B” meant the car carried baggage, the second “M” meant the car carried mail and the number following was the length of the car in feet.

The MBM62 were RPO/REA cars:

MU RPO/REA car #1209 is a MU motor unit and is on the business end of this train awaiting departure westbound at the station in Hempstead on June 25, 1946.  Visible inside the car as well as outside are the barred security windows. (George V. Arnoux photo)

The MPBM54 were RPO/Combine cars, meaning the car handled mail, baggage/express AND carried passengers.

Class MPBM54 RPO MU car #1382 is seen here at Jamaica on May 12, 1940.  This car consists of passenger seating, mail handling and baggage/express service.  (George E. Votava photo)

Handling the mail was a serious business and mail handlers on board trains had to observe security precautions.  Windows on the cars were barred, doors were locked and employees wore sidearms.

Here’s a view of mail handlers inside a LIRR RPO car taken on June 18, 1965, the last day mail was carried on the LIRR.  You’ll see the POD employee at the left is wearing his sidearm while on duty.  The holsters were leather with “Property of U. S. Post Office Dept.” stamped into the side. (Photographer unidentified)

Mail handlers on board new runs had to practice their sorting so they would be proficient on whatever line they were assigned.  To this end, RPO “practice cases” were available as were small cards for the handlers to practice sorting into the various “pigeon-holes” in the box, which, as you can see below, is a smaller version of the full-sized racks seen in the car interior photo above.

  

(Both photos courtesy of David M. Morrison)

Mail could be dropped by individuals wishing to mail a letter into a RPO car while it was sitting at the station platform.  A typical mail slot was installed in the side of the car near the door and it was of sufficient height to be reached by someone standing on the platform.

 

 

These four images are close-ups of the images of the cars posted above to show the location of the mail slot built into the side of the car to allow people needing to mail a letter while at the station to drop it conveniently in the side of the car, probably on the very train in which they will soon be riding.

Bags of mail were brought to and from the respective Post Offices and railroad stations to be loaded on the train or taken back to the Post Office. My father remembers the Postmaster at Holtsville meeting the train with the mail bag in a wheelbarrow.  The Post Office at that time was in an old general store called Lydecker’s which used to stand facing Waverly Avenue and across from the station at the western-most end of the crushed cinder platform.  Pushing the wheelbarrow on that platform was no easy task.  It would probably have violated some union contract in force today.

If the train were to stop, the bag would be manhandled up onto the car for loading or manhandled off the car into some form of conveyance . . . . a truck . . . a postal worker’s car trunk or, as in the case at my hometown of Holtsville, the Postmaster’s trusty old wheelbarrow for the “trip” back to Lydecker’s store.

However, most times mail was picked up “on the fly” meaning the train didn’t stop.  This was effected by a POD employee or, in some instances, a designated railroad employee lugging the hefty mailbag to a trackside mail crane.  He climbed the ladder and hooked the top of the mailbag on the upper arm and then yanked the lower arm down and hooked the bottom of the mailbag to it, stretching the bag taught.

Here’s a view of the mail crane to the left of the tracks at the South Country Road crossing of the Montauk branch in East Patchogue.  The East Patchogue Post Office used this crane for mail pickup. The crane arms are at rest.  View is looking west towards the crossing shanty on April 24, 1946 (Fred Weber photo)

This view is of the mail crane at Central Islip on a cold, wintry morning in 1916.  The mailbag has already been placed on the crane.  In the background at the right can be seen a freight train laying up and at the left, the old, never-used “CP” block station cabin which, later on that year, was loaded on a flatcar and moved to Upton Junction, the rail entrance to the U. S. Army’s WWI-era camp at Upton, NY, where it was renamed “WC” and placed in service.

The procedure for pickup was like the engineer and conductor of a moving train catching train orders without stopping . . only a metal arm on the train was used to grab the heavily reinforced leather bag instead of human arms to grab the flimsy order on a length of knotted cord!

The steel bar attached to the side door of the RPO car was swung from the “out-of-service” position of straight down, to the “in-service” position of straight out.  The bar would lock in place and it’s location across the car door also acted as a guardrail to keep the mail handler from falling out of the moving train.

Here’s a close-up of RPO car #7751 showing the steel grab bar in the “out-of-service” position, but in use as a guard rail as the pedestrian door is open.

We’re looking at the mail crane again at Central Islip , only this time a train is in the process of yanking the bag off the crane by the metal arm.  It will soon be manhandled into the car for opening, postmarking, canceling and sorting. (George G. Ayling photo)

Once the bag was snagged, the momentum of the train and the resulting breeze kept the bag wrapped around the steel bar until the mail handler would lug the bag inside the train to be opened and sorted into various other destination bags on board.  

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          RPO/REA car #7743 catching mailbag on the fly at Bayport, NY – August, 1958  (Art Huneke photo, Dave Keller archive)

In reverse operation, the mail bag, if on a non-stop train, would be tossed off in the vicinity of the mail crane while the train was at speed and the designated railroad employee would retrieve the bag, bring it into the ticket office and await its pickup by one of the postal employees from the local Post Office in town.

This tossing of the bag from a moving train created a problem initially.  Sometimes the bags would hit the hard ground and bounce back up and go under the wheels of the train where the bag would be run over, severed and the mail strewn all over.
          
         To avoid this mishap, low, slat fences were installed in the “dump zone” trackside so that the bag, if bouncing back up, would hit the wooden slat fence and stay contained AWAY from the rails and the moving steel wheels.

If you refer to the image above of the mail bag on the crane at Central Islip in the snowy, winter view, look at the base of the crane and beyond . . . you’ll see the slat fence to stop the mailbag from going under the train.

  CPA20-5-2001-PRR_RPO_Car-Mailbag_Pickup_and_Dropoff_Blue-Point_eastbound_1951_Myers-Keller.jpg (98199 bytes)
        LIRR FM CPA20-5 #2001 is pulling a Pennsylvania R.R. RPO car which is not only about to pick up the suspended mailbag from the trackside mail crane, but also shows a mailbag for local delivery airborne in the process of being tossed-off. The foldout metal bar on the car door is about to hit the racked mailbag dead-center. Eastbound at Blue Point - 1951.

        The photo was taken just after diesels took over the LIRR.  I always wanted a picture of a train picking up mail but I had forgotten railway mail pick-up rule #1: What gets picked up also is detrained.  

        Anyhow, I felt an object go whizzing by my head just as I snapped the photo. It was the off-loaded bag and it missed me by inches. It appears in the photo just about at the coupling point of the engine and RPO car.

        I was lucky--another few inches and my brain would have been scattered along the ROW and deservedly so. 

Well, it was a lesson I would never forget! Info/Photo: Stephen Myers

As mentioned earlier, mail was sorted on the moving train and the letters, etc. were also cancelled on board.  This created another railroad-related hobby of collecting stamped “RPO” covers some of which are depicted below.

 

 

This old cover from 1902 shows a scan of the front as well as the back of the envelope because this envelope was carried partly by regular carrier and partly by train.  You’ll see the front of the enveloped is postmarked in a normal fashion in Brooklyn but on the BACK of the envelope, we see the railroad postmark of “ Brooklyn South Shore , Tr 1.”  

The RPO postmark consisted of the route (ex:  “Montauk and NY”), the specific train upon which the letter was carried and cancelled, the postmarked date and the indication of “R.P.O.”  The franking, or cancellation, of the stamp reads “RMS” which stood for “Railway Mail  Service.”  According to fellow LIRR historian Art Huneke, each branch that handled the mail was a separate contract between the LIRR and the US Post Office Department.. . and, while all branches carried the mail, not all branches sorted the mail, although most did.

 

Another old postmark and cancellation is shown here:

           This cover from 1909 is postmarked “ Wading Riv. & L. I. City” and was carried on Train #616. (Courtesy of Art Huneke)

You’ll notice in the envelope below everything described above, however you’ll notice TWO train numbers indicated:

This postmark indicates “106-56” as the train numbers.  It tells us that the envelope was carried on train #106 from Penn Station to Babylon , then on train #56, Babylon to Patchogue, one of the Babylon-Patchogue “Scoot” runs. (There were even U.S. Mail trains from Penn Station numbered in the 9000s!)

Indicated below are some of the route names found on the LIRR’s RPO post markings:

Greenport & N.Y.
          Montauk & N.Y.
         
Port Jeff & N.Y.
          Wading River & L. I. City  
          Port Washington & L. I. City  
          N.Y. & Far Rock
          Sag Harbor & L. I. City

Here are two more RPO postmarks and cancellations . . . .

Mail service in third rail territory came to an end before it ended in steam/diesel territory. .. sometime in the 1940s and1950s . . .  and the MU cars that were equipped for mail service had their steel grab bars removed and the cars became baggage/express cars. 

This is an RPO postmark and cancellation from electric (third rail) territory:  The cover would have been handled on a MU Motor RPO car as shown above and operating on the LIRR’s Far Rockaway branch, a branch that is all electrified. The postmark reads  “N.Y. & Far Rock” and was handled on train #1127 on November 22, 1940.

Mail service in steam/diesel territory lasted much longer until it eventually came to an end due to the convenience and cheaper carrying of mail by truck and because the mail contracts over the years became more of an inconvenience and less of a money-making proposition than they had been initially.

Some post offices were actually located in the LIRR depots themselves.  The Plandome Post Office was part of the old Plandome depot along the Port Washington branch and the Mill Neck depot along the Oyster Bay branch had a post office structure constructed into the side of the existing depot building.

While the Shinnecock Hills depot was once a station stop along the LIRR’s Montauk branch east of the Shinnecock Canal,  its railroad ticket agency closed and the station was discontinued as a stop in September, 1932.  The structure housed the Shinnecock Hills Post Office and for the next 30-odd years after the station stop was discontinued, postal workers on duty hung the leather mailbag on the old trackside mail crane until the end of mail service east of Speonk.


Photo/Archive: Unknown via Internet

As an eastbound MU electric train blocks the crossing at the Merrick station to make the scheduled station stop on c. 04/04/1965+, two U.S. Post Office Department mail trucks have backed up on the street, close to the head-end RPO / REA car to off-load mail from the train for processing and sorting for delivery at the local postal facility.  The motorman is keeping an eye on the postal workers, probably anxious to be underway to escape the taunts from irritated drivers trying to get to work.  Railway Post Office service was to come to an end on the LIRR a few months later.  (Dave Keller data)

The last train to carry mail on the Long Island Rail Road was train #37 running from Speonk to Jamaica on June 18, 1965, thus bringing to a close almost 130 years of U. S. Mail service on the L.I.R.R. November 15, 2014

All photos/research are from the archive of David Keller unless noted otherwise.