Railway Post Office

By Anne Murray, Postmaster Fort Myers/Cape Coral

At least three decades before the Pony Express galloped into postal history, the “iron horser” made a formal appearance.

In August 1829, an English-built locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, completed the first locomotive run in the United States on the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company Road in Honesdale, Penn. In 1830, a steam locomotive reached an unheard-of speed of 30 miles an hour.

As early as 1832, the Post Office Department recognized the value of this new mode of transportation. State coach contractors on a route from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Penn., were granted an allowance of $400 per year “for carrying the mail on the railroad as far as West Chester” (30 miles).

Although the Department entered into contracts providing for rail transportation in succeeding years, it wasn’t until after passage of the Act of July 6, 1938—designating all railroads in the United States as post routes—that mail service by railroad increased rapidly.

On August 28, 1864, the first U.S. Railway Post Office route was established officially when a car equipped for general distribution was placed in service between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Similar routes were established between New York and Washington, DC; Chicago and Rock Island, Ill.; Chicago and Quincy, Ill.; and New York and Erie, Penn.

In 1930, more than 10,000 trains were used to move the mail into cities, towns, and villages throughout the United States.

Following passage of the Transportation Act of 1958, mail-carrying passenger trains diminished rapidly. By 1965, only 190 trains carried mail. By 1970, the railroads carried virtually no First-Class Mail.

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