A Trip on the Fast Mail

Much of America’s mail was once sorted and distributed by the railway mail service. The first experiment in distributing U.S. mail in so-called “post offices on wheels” was made in 1862 between Hannibal and St. Joseph, Missouri. The last railway post office in the nation, which traveled between New York and Washington D.C., was discontinued in 1977. The Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln on August 12, 1892, described mail sorting and distribution aboard the Burlington Railroad’s “celebrated fast mail from Illinois to the Missouri river,” which carried mail for Nebraska and the West.

The Journal reporter said: “The fast mail [from Chicago] on the Burlington is not simply an engine and a mail car. There are five coaches-an express car, two cars for handling mail and two for storage. In the storage cars are piled up row upon row of sacks of mail which have been untouched from New York and New England offices. Also boxes of stamped envelopes and various postal supplies. The other two cars are veritable bee hives crammed with letters and papers. One of them is used for letters and the delivery and reception of mail at the various stations. The other is exclusively a [news]paper car and upon certain days of the week when weekly papers are numerous presents a most animated scene. . . .

“At Burlington the far eastern mail reposing heretofore in the sacks in which it left for eastern points, is dumped out into huge baskets and sorted for distribution in the west. On a busy day this is no slight task as there are hundreds upon hundreds of pieces to be sorted, tied up in packages and deposited in proper sacks. Four men, including the head clerk, work upon the letters and see to the discharge and receipt of mail. The others in the second car handle papers. The train rushed along at breakneck speed and occasionally rounds a curve so rapidly as to pitch the mail out of the letter boxes. Every clerk putting up a package must attach a slip with his name, the date and number of train. If a mistake is discovered it is easy to trace it. The train stops at important stations where large quantities of mail are to be put off. Albia seemed to be the most fortunate of Iowa towns. This is so because here connection is made for Des Moines and the daily papers are served to a large part of Iowa by this means. The fast mail of course runs very rapidly and has a constant habit of being on time.

“Before reaching Pacific Junction the Nebraska and Colorado mail is made up ready for transfer. The train arrives at 4:45 p.m., a B.& M. train is waiting and the mail is quickly put aboard and is whirled away to Ashland where it catches the evening fast train west bound, gets into Lincoln at 6:19 and into Denver the following morning at 7 a.m.” 

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