The Railway Post Office (RPO)

L&N RPO #1107

Railway mail service began in 1832 on Railway Post Office cars or “RPOs,” but grew slowly until the Civil War. In 1862, mail was sorted en route in order to speed mail delivery, as a train moved between two points. The idea proved to be exceptionally successful, and as the postal service decentralized its operations, it concentrated on sorting much of the growing volume of mail while it was being carried on the nation’s rail lines.  Many lines earned substantial revenues with the railway post office cars which offset the profit loss from the large costs of passenger service on the same train. In 1948,  794 RPO lines ran on more than 161,000 miles of track but later declined until the last RPO stopped its delivery in 1977.

Due to the fast pace and sometimes dangerous nature of the railway post office delivery system, railway mail clerks had extensive training and constant testing concerning the handling and delivery of the mail.  Each railway clerk had to know the post offices and rail junctions along the specific RPO right along with unique delivery details for larger towns and cities on the route.  A clerk’s speed and accuracy in sorting the mail were both tested periodically, and a score of 96% or less might result in a warning from a superior.

An unique feature for RPO cars is a hook that swings out to snatch a leather or canvas pouch of outgoing mail hanging from a track-side mail crane while the train sped by.  This was done at smaller towns where trains did not stop. A local postal clerk would have a pouch of mail ready to be snatched as the train passed the station. The railway clerk would stand in the doorway and swing out the catcher arm to catch the mail pouch hanging alongside the track. A local postal clerk would retrieve the pouch and deliver it to the post office.  This dangerous maneuver required speed, accuracy and agility as the train sped along the track.  Due to the placement of the railway car behind the tender and locomotive and the possible threat of robbery because of the contents of the mail, the role of the Railway Postal clerk was a dangerous job along with being physical and stressful.

In 1913, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad purchased their first five Railway Post Office Cars. In 1927 the railroad ordered thirteen more cars, numbers 1105-1117. This number would grow to nearly ninety by the mid 1940’s. Of all those cars, there are only two of the heavyweights in existence today. RPO #1100 is at the Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the generous grant provided by the Bowling Green Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, RPO #1107 sits on the consist in Bowling Green.

L&N RPO #1107 is filled with exhibits that illustrate the story of how the U.S. Mail moved rapidly across this country. A video kiosk details the story of Owney, the terrier mix dog, who traveled the country on the RPOs.  This icon of American postal lore is a favorite of Railpark visitors.