The Post Office has been an important part of American society since Ben Franklin’s appointment as Postmaster General in 1775.
But new efficiencies were found as new modes of transportation developed.
Horses, steamboats, trains and airplanes each played a role in speeding up the mail. Since the earliest days of railroads, it was common for postal workers to place locked mail bags on trains going between major cities. But these bags needed to be retrieved, sorted and forwarded to smaller post offices via horse-drawn wagons.
George B. Armstrong of the Chicago Post Office is credited with the idea to put a postal clerk on the train to sort mail while it’s underway.
Armstrong was made the general superintendent of the Railway Mail Service in 1869. In a few years, the country was divided into six operating divisions using almost every major rail line.
On each route, part or all of one car was dedicated to a clerk or clerks, who sorted mail, ate and slept while traveling. The clerk would grab mail bags hanging from hooks in smaller towns and throw out bags of sorted mail.
In 1898, there were 42 mail clerks running in and out of Spokane in all directions. In 1907, there were 70.
The clerks got premium pay for the long hours of sorting mail in bumpy, lurching cars lit by oil lamps. The longest route in the country went through Spokane: 1,500-miles from Williston, North Dakota, to Portland, Oregon.
In 1913, Great Northern Railroad built a postal sorting facility on Havermale Island. It was called the Railway Mail Terminal or the Post Office Annex.
Clerks also defended the mail during a spate of train robberies around the time of World War I. Clerks were issued .45-caliber revolvers, which were later changed out for .38 caliber.
Post Office Annex was abandoned in 1960 after a new mail facility was built at Trent Avenue and Cincinnati. It was torn down in 1973 for Expo ’74.
The last run by a Railway Post Office car ended in Washington, D.C in 1977.
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