The US Railway Mail Service: How the Iron Horse Made History

Long before the operations of the legendary Pony Express, trains were the main mode of transportation for mail. The Stourbridge, a locomotive built in England, made the first run in Hondesdale, Pennsylvania. A second train, the Tom Thumb, became the first steam-powered locomotive to be used for delivery in 1830. It ran a little over 10mph and was actually outran by a horse. By the next year, however, a speedier locomotive appeared, running a then-impressive 30mph. By 1832, contracts were granted to use rail transportation to move mail, in conjunction with stage services.

In 1838, after the designation of railroads across the US as postal routes, railway mail service increased. Deliveries were accompanied by route agents who ensured that mails were exchanged and delivered. It was also the route agents' job to sort the mail depending on which route points they were supposed to be sent. This ensured that mails specified for a certain route will be delivered and not sent someplace else. It wasn't long before transit mail was being distributed on these post-office-on-wheels.

The first railroad postal route was established in 1864 when a general distribution postal car went into service for the Chicago to Clinton, Iowa route. Other routes were established thereafter. Initially, only letter mail was sorted on the postal cars but by 1869, other types of mail were also sorted.

Trains as a means of transporting mail turned out to be fast and efficient, prompting the US to add more and more trains to service postal routes. In 1930, over 10,000 iron horses were utilized to ensure that mail reached its destination, regardless of how big or small the village, town or city was. After the 1958 Transportation Act was passed, passenger trains carrying mail began to decline in popularity. Only 190 mail-carrying trains were left in 1965. By 1970, it was rare to find First Class mail on the railroads and only 8 routes remained. In 1971, seven of these routes were terminated. The last, a post office that serviced the route from New York to Washington, DC ended its run in June 1977.

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