Posted on 28 August 2014.
Post office clerk in a mail car ready to make an outgoing-incoming mail exchange. Photo courtesy of Cedar Springs Historical Society.
The R.M.S. Railway Mail Service
By D.M. White, Cedar Springs Historical Society
I was one of the federal employees who worked and guarded the U.S. Mail on the trains. We carried all the Federal Reserve cash and registered mail. We handled all the revenue from the Mackinac Bridge each week and it was no small amount!
Here is an example of how the mail service used to work. We lived on R.R. #1-Rockford and when my mother mailed a penny postcard on a Monday morning to Sears Roebuck in Chicago for an item, the item would be delivered to our house on Wednesday—two days later, every time!
After I entered the mail service in 1957, I found out how this speedy response was possible. In 1957, there were 82 employees in the Grand Rapids office. We had our own office separate from the regular post office. Our civil service exam was different from the regular postal workers and on a different pay scale, as our jobs were considered hazardous. We were required to carry a .38 caliber pistol and to qualify every six months with the gun. In 1957, there were also highway post offices that did the same things as the railway post offices.
Sorting mail for the Railway Mail Service. Photo courtesy the Cedar Springs Historical Society.
Our runs out of Grand Rapids at that time were as follows: Grand Rapids to Cadillac, Grand Rapids to Ludington, Grand Rapids to Saginaw, Grand Rapids to Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids to Detroit, on the C&O Railroad, three times each way daily; Detroit and Muskegon two times each way daily; Port Huron to Chicago three times daily; Grand Rapids to Petoskey, Jackson to Bay City, Detroit to Mackinac twice daily; and Detroit to Saginaw and Grand Rapids to Chicago, twice daily.
My favorite run of the day was the Detroit and Mackinac. One problem with that was it never got to Detroit or Mackinac. It terminated on each end at Bay City and Cheboygan. As you can see, it was easy for my mother’s order to Sears Roebuck to have reached Chicago so fast with all these daily runs.
An interesting part of the R.M.S. was when we caught the mail on the fly. Smaller towns on the run were not stopped at but we would catch and dispatch the mail at 60 miles per hour, more or less.
A device called the mail crane was owned by the railroad and was on a pole alongside the train tracks. The postmaster would hang a catcher pouch on it. The catcher pouch was a heavy canvas bag that was re-enforced with leather and steel. This hanging bag would go from 0 to 60 mph instantly as we grabbed it and, at the same time, we would dispatch a pouch containing their mail. The complete transfer technique (tossing out the outgoing mail a second before grabbing the catcher pouch) required much skill and potentially could cause harm or even death for those not trained properly or anyone near the passing train.
One funny mishap occurred on a cold icy winter day in Valparaiso, Indiana. Freezing rain had turned everything to ice. The local clerk knew the dispatched pouch had to hit something or it would never stop on that ice. As we approached, we saw that the mail messenger was hiding behind his car, so we threw the pouch and it slid under the car. It hit the messenger, and the pouch and the man went sliding down the street together.
Detailed view of the mail hook on CBQ 1926, a RPO preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum. Photo courtesy the Cedar Springs Historical Society.
We stood and sorted mail as the train was running down the tracks and had to know how to direct a letter to all the towns in Michigan. When I started in 1957, Michigan had 1,080 post offices in the state. We had to put up an exam for each state we worked in. I had to know Indiana, Michigan, and New York. I don’t remember how many post offices Indiana had, but New York had over 2,000. There were no zip codes then so we had to know the towns in each state. We were required to score 95 percent on each exam to keep our jobs. To explain why were not robbed is easy—nobody knew we carried this valuable cargo—nobody.
We were issued four items that were to be protected no matter what. One was an L.A. key. This opened all first class mail pouches. Number two was a registered key that opened all registered mail pouches. Each time it was opened, a dial, like an odometer, would record this opening. Each time this locked pouch was transferred to another unit, it was accompanied by a bill bearing these numbers, and the signature of the man who dispatched it. Number three was your pistol, and number four was your badge. You were inspected regularly. If any of the above were missing, or in bad shape, you were in real trouble.
With large shipments of cash, the post office Detroit or Chicago would notify the police and they would escort the truck down to the depot. They in turn would alert the Grand Rapids police to meet the train and escort it to the post office. I have a comical story about what happened to me one dark night during this event. Ask me and I’ll tell you about it sometime. Like the man said, “you gotta stop sometime.”
If you would like to visit the Cedar Springs Historical Museum or get a group together to visit, I would love to tell you more of the story and give a demonstration. Just call the museum to make arrangements at 696-3335.
Visit the museum Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and other times by appointment to see the Railroad Mail Service exhibit.
Article and photos used courtesy of the Cedar Springs Historical Society.