Railway Post

Railway Post

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The Grand Junction, which linked Birmingham with the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, was opened on 4th July 1837. Sixteen days later the London to Birmingham line was opened. This meant that the four major cities in England, London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool were now all linked together by rail.

The average speed of the first locomotives used on the Grand Junction was 22 mph. This was twice the speed of mail coaches on the road. The Post Office therefore decided to transfer the mails to the railway. In 1838 John Ramsey, a Post Office official, designed a Travelling Post Office carriage. Using a traductor arm and a net, the post office workers were able to collect the mail at stations without the train having to stop.

George B. Armstrong, manager of the Chicago Post Office, is generally credited with being the founder of the concept of en route mail sorting aboard trains which became the Railway Mail Service. Mail had been carried in locked pouches aboard trains prior to Armstrong's involvement with the system, but there had been no organized system of sorting mail en route, to have mail prepared for delivery when the mail pouches reached their destination city. [1]

In response to Armstrong's request to experiment with the concept, the first railway post office (RPO) began operating on the Chicago and North Western Railway between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa, on August 28, 1864. [1] The concept was successful, and was expanded to other railroads operating from Chicago, including the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Chicago and Rock Island, Pennsylvania and the Erie.

By 1869 when the Railway Mail Service was officially inaugurated, [1] the system had expanded to virtually all of the major railroads of the United States, and the country was divided into six operating divisions. A superintendent was over each division, all under the direction of George B. Armstrong, who had been summoned from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to become general superintendent of the postal railway service. Armstrong served only two years as general superintendent before resigning because of failing health. He died in Chicago on May 5, 1871, two days after his resignation.

Armstrong's successor in Chicago, George Bangs, was appointed as the second general superintendent of the postal railway service. Bangs encouraged the use of fast mail trains, trains made up entirely of mail cars, traveling on expedited schedules designed to accommodate the needs of the Post Office rather than the needs of the traveling public.

In 1890, 5,800 postal railway clerks provided service over 154,800 miles (249,100 km) of railroad. By 1907, over 14,000 clerks were providing service over 203,000 miles (327,000 km) of railroad. When the post office began handling parcel post in 1913, terminal Railway Post Office operations were established in major cities by the RMS to handle the large increase in mail volume. The Railway Mail Service reached its peak in the 1920s, then began a gradual decline with the discontinuance of RPO service on branchlines and secondary routes. After 1942, Highway Post Office (HPO) service was utilized to continue en route sorting after discontinuance of some railway post office operations. As highway mail transportation became more prevalent, the Railway Mail Service was redesignated as the Postal Transportation Service.

Abandonment of routes accelerated in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and many of the remaining lines were discontinued in 1967. On June 30, 1974, the Cleveland and Cincinnati highway post office, the last HPO route, was discontinued. The last railway post office operated between New York and Washington, D.C. on June 30, 1977.

A large bust and monument to Armstrong is displayed in the north side of Chicago's Loop Station Post Office.

A restored RPO car is displayed as part of the Pioneer Zephyr at the Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

The restored 1927 AT&SF Railway #74 RPO car is displayed at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo (San Diego County), CA.

For the permanent exhibition, Mail by Rail, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum re-created a railway mail train in its Atrium. The interior fixtures are from a de-commissioned mail car. The exterior portion of the Railway Post Office train was created by Smithsonian artisans. [2]

  • First Division: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts. Headquarters: Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Second Division: New York, New Jersey. Headquarters: New York City.
  • Third Division: District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina. Headquarters: Washington, D.C.
  • Fourth Division: Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Florida. Headquarters: Atlanta.
  • Fifth Division: Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio. Headquarters: Cincinnati.
  • Sixth Division: Illinois, Iowa. Headquarters: Chicago.
  • Seventh Division: Missouri, Kansas. Headquarters: St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Eighth Division: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona. Headquarters: San Francisco.
  • Ninth Division: Michigan, also lines of New York Central Railroad between New York City and Chicago. Headquarters: Cleveland.
  • Tenth Division: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Headquarters: St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • Eleventh Division: New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma. Headquarters: Fort Worth.
  • Twelfth Division: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi. Headquarters: New Orleans.
  • Thirteenth Division: Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington. Headquarters: Seattle.
  • Fourteenth Division: Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska. Headquarters: Omaha.
  • Fifteenth Division: Pennsylvania, Delaware, also lines of Pennsylvania Railroad west of Pittsburgh. Headquarters: Pittsburgh.

Effective August 15, 1955, the fifteen divisions of the Postal Transportation Service were eliminated and the mail routes divided among the same Postal Regions into which Post Offices were classified.

Railway Post - History

Interior of CP 3618 restored at Canadian Railway Museum/Exporail Jean-Francois Dumont

Canada's postal service celebrated its 150th Anniversary April 6, 2001. For more than 100 of those years the Railway Mail Service played a crucial role in the postal service. Mail was handled on trains from the earliest times, possibly as early as 1836 with the opening of the first railway, the tiny Champlain & St.Lawrence. The first proven train cancellation was October 22,1853 on the St.Lawrence & Atlantic between Montreal and Portland, Maine, following the opening of a 292 mile long route in July 1853. Postmaster General James Morris wrote the Governor General of British North America, August 12,1853, suggesting travelling post offices. The first one began January 1854 on the Great Western Railway between Niagara Falls and London, Ontario, which line was opened November 1, 1853.

Mail was officially carried as early as 1693, the first official post office in Canada was opened in Halifax, Nova Scotia by Deputy Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin in 1755. (Yes, THAT Benjamin Franklin! He was at the time a British subject before turning against the King.) Control of the post office passed from the Imperial Parliament to the Province of Canada on April 6, 1851. The first postage stamp was the famous Three Pence Beaver, based on a sketch by none other than the famous, multi-talented Sir Sandford Fleming! Following Confederation (1867), the Post Office was created in 1868 as a department of the federal government. In its first year it handled nearly 22 million letters, 19 million newspapers and 39,000 parcels, a total of about 41 million pieces of mail, approximately the same volume as is handled in a single day now! Canada Post Corp. was created as a crown corporation October 16,1981 to replace the Royal Mail.

The Royal Mail displaying the Coat-of-Arms of the ruling Sovereign was a common sight everywhere in Canada and enjoyed special privileges. "The mail must go through", might as have well been the official motto for nothing was permitted to interfere with its journey. There is a true story of how this was tested in Ottawa one day where special streetcars were used to carry mail to and from the main post office. It seems the motorman was well aware of the Royal Mail authority and refused to stop for a procession. He was arrested but not convicted because "the mail must go through".

In early times "Postal Conductors" accompanied mail, but this was soon changed to Railway Mail Clerks who actually sorted and cancelled the mail. (In later years as the volume of mail grew, only letters mailed at railway stations, and all Registered mail, was cancelled in the R.P.O. increasing the rarity of these cancels for stamp collectors). The travelling post offices the Postmaster General wanted became known as Railway Post Offices (R.PO.), and were part of the Railway Mail Service. Sorting of mail en route saved time, and a network of these "travelling post offices" soon covered all of Canada. Railway Mail Clerks were the elite of the postal service, their training, knowledge and dexterity, all in cramped quarters that moved beneath their feet set them apart from all others. Mail was sorted to towns on route and connections to other trains, a very complex matter. Mail for cities was sorted right down to the Letter Carrier's walk. Busy R.P.O. runs involved men sorting one piece of mail every 2 seconds! The annual test involved a rigorous 1000 pieces in one hour! 90% accuracy was demanded. All classes of mail were handled by the Railway Mail Service, but not all of it was in R.P.O's, much was carried as 'through" mail in closed cars especially parcels. There was even a letter slot in the side of the mail car where letters could be posted at station stops! Regularly scheduled passenger trains were used to ensure dependable movement. Mail was picked up on the fly using a catch arm on the side of the car swung out by a Railway Mail Clerk who at the same time kicked off a sack of mail for that place. This was a tricky maneuver especially at night or in bad weather and with high speed. Although the engineer was supposed to slow up, if the train was running late and he was making up time, it was just theory. The engineer was to whistle the Mail Car approaching the pickup point, likely this was just the normal one long blast at one mile when approaching a station. Rules 31, and 14 (m) applied. Not much warning, less than a minute at 60 mph, which is a mile a minute. One thing's for sure, if the catch was missed, the train didn't stop!

Mail Cars on the heaviest main line runs had 72-foot interiors staffed by up to 10 men, while others had a 60-foot interior, worked by 5 men. Secondary runs involved a Mail & Express car with a 30-foot mail section staffed by 3 men, the other 30 feet being for Express. The men lived on these cars for long runs and thus they were equipped with stoves, toilet, sink, cooking facilities etc. Men received a travel allowance (15 cents per mile in 1955), to cover their meals and hotel expenses.

All went well until 1948 when the Post Office introduced the "all up" system whereby most letters went by air without the premium rate. Local letters cost 3 cents, out of town was 4 cents and air mail 7 cents. (Today's rate is 47 cents for all of Canada.)

Parcel Post remained a very important aspect of the Postal Department involving huge volumes of mail including the extensive mail order catalogue business of the Eaton's and Simpsons department stores which allowed even the smallest community to promptly receive goods.

Newspapers were long an important aspect of the Railway Mail Service, again to reach people in outlying rural areas. Perishables from farmers such as baby chicks, bees, eggs, etc. were also handled along with Registered mail that included money and gold! Even ballot boxes from Federal elections were carried by the Royal Mail. Access to the Mail Car was restricted to Postal employees, not even the train Conductor was permitted inside it.

The system grew until in 1950 there were 192 R.P.O.'s staffed by 1,385 men, covering some 40,000 miles of route and 834 "through" cars. A national rail strike in 1950 (the first ever), gave trucks the mail and the Post Office saw the flexibility that permitted. It was all down hill from there on. Loss of the mail contract often resulted in discontinuance of passenger service, especially on branch lines. The last R.P.O. ended its run April 24, 1971 returning from Campbellton, New Brunswick to Levis, Quebec. Mail was still carried by rail until 1987, when it was finally turned over entirely to trucks and planes. (The first official Airmail flight had taken place June 24, 1918 between Montreal and Toronto.) A very efficient system of delivering mail was lost with the ending of the Railway Mail Service and the R.P.O.

Stamp collectors, known as philatelists, often specialize in certain areas one of which is "covers", the actual envelope and stamp. This is to preserve the cancellation, which indicates the date and place of mailing. One of the most popular covers is those cancelled on board the R.P.O., over the years thousands of different cancellations tell the history of the Railway Mail Service. One of the most unique of these cancellations was that used during the construction of the CPR which read "End-of-Track B.C."

Read the full story in On Track, The Railway Mail Service in Canada, by Susan McLeod O'Reilly. Visit our LIBRARY for further information.

National Postal Museum 1990.34.4
Photograph by Steve Darby

(Bruce F. Greenaway, London district, 1949-1965)

Loading the mail car at Union Station, Toronto, circa 1920
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (C 53681)

The Fast Mail

The railroad station attendant at Mishawaka, Indiana, hurried to tie the morning mail pouch to a crane aside the tracks of the station, in anticipation of the morning passing of the "20th Century Limited," the premier train on the New York Central System, then quickly approaching the small station.

As the "Century" entered a gentle curve leading to the station, a clerk in the door of its railway post office car surveyed the passing landscape, looking for a large oak tree near the bend in the curve. The tree served as a point of reference for him to use as the spot from where he should toss the morning mail pouch for Mishawaka, allowing momentum and the train's speed to carry it to the station.

After tossing the pouch, the clerk quickly extended the train's railway post office catcher arm in time to hook "on the fly" the unprocessed mail pouch as the train sped on to Chicago.

For many who may have witnessed scenes like the morning dispatch and pickup of mail at Mishawaka, little thought was probably given to one of the more visible activities of the Railway Mail Postal Service. For more than 140 years between 1832 and 1977, it set the standards for speed, dependability, and response to the mission of moving and distributing the nation's mail.

From its humble beginnings during the nation's early years, the Railway Mail Postal Service became a leading force and player in connecting and facilitating the movement of mail and commerce. It served in this role until its end on June 30, 1977, when trucks and airplanes supplanted trains as the dominant mode of mail transport.

The Early Years, 1830–1876

In part as a response to criticism from businesses and the public that the mails, then moving by horse and stagecoach, were too slow, the postmaster general in the early 1830s decided to put the mails on trains. On December 5, 1832, Slaymaker and Tomlinson, stage route contractors of the time, also began carrying the mail by rail from Lancaster to West Chester, Pennsylvania, marking the official beginning of the use of rail by the U.S. Post Office department to transport the mail.

The early 1830s through 1876 was a time of multiple first steps, new legislation, and management problems for the burgeoning railway mail service. In 1837, railroad mileage in the country totaled 1,497 miles. The first recorded instance of a clerk being appointed to accompany the mail in transit on a railroad car and have charge of the mails occurred in May 1837 with the appointment of John E. Kendall as a route agent.

In 1838 and 1840, agents were assigned to attend the mail between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia and between Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts. These early initiatives marked the beginnings of the railway mail service in the United States.

Records about the work performed by clerks on railroads in the early days are meager, but it is thought that there was a gradual development in the scope of the work up to 1864, when all mail in transit began to be distributed in railroad cars. Until then, mail was distributed to larger post offices, and the only mail sent to rail cars for handling was that which was intended for delivery at local points along the various lines. Route agents on the trains opened pouches received from local offices, took out mail for other local points on the line, and sent the balance of the mail into the terminal office for distribution. Most mail traveled in closed pouches or sacks, unopened from one terminal post office to the next, where it was held for examination, separation, and dispatch on the next day.

Significant early legislation that affected the mail service included an act of Congress approved July 7, 1838 (5 Stat. L. 283), that declared that all railroads in the United States were post roads. This designation was a reference back to the nation's earliest mail service established in 1775 by the Continental Congress, which emulated the British system of posts for carrying letters. The act had a twofold effect: it increased the use of railroads to transmit the mails and limited the use of post riders and horse-drawn vehicles to post offices that were not on railway routes. In those areas of the country that were not on railroad routes, mail was carried by contractors, and the transportation of mail between post offices by any means other than by boat or railroad was called star route service.

Seven years later on March 3, 1845, another act of Congress formally addressed the need to provide for service to small post offices and people who lived in towns away from railroad lines, a requirement that until then had been handled by contractors. The 1845 act formalized the star route system of contract service and required that the Postmaster General award the routes to the lowest bidder.

In the mid-19th century, the Post Office faced many problems, as its 1853 annual report enumerated. Foremost on that list was the problem of establishing a fixed rate of pay per mile for the railroads. When disagreements occurred between the Post Office and the railroads, the end result was often that the railroads refused the mail, and service was disrupted.

On other occasions, the railroads failed to adhere to schedules of set times of arrival and departure of the mails, leaving the Post Office feeling that the railroads were beyond their control. Insufficient numbers of mail cars, difficulty in finding suitable rooms to house distributing post offices in large cities, and defective methods of mail distribution wasted both time and money. An 1885 history of the Railway Mail Service noted that:

The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad carried the nation s first railway post office. (National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

The years from 1862 to 1864 were pivotal in the evolution of the railway mail service. On July 7, 1862, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair called for the establishment of the nation's first railway post office car on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad between Hannibal and St. Joseph, Missouri.

The suggestion for such a car and service appears to have originated with William A. Davis, then assistant postmaster at St. Joseph. Overland mail from the east backed up in St. Joseph as a result of poor conditions of the railroad or missed connections with California-bound stagecoaches and the "Pony Express."

Davis's solution was to distribute and dispatch the overland mail in transit on specially prepared railroad cars. Though crude, the car contained an early letter case for sorting mail, small work tables, and oversize doors that allowed for easy access.

The Railway Post Office (RPO) idea advanced by Davis was by no means new. A "travelling post office," consisting of a 16-foot converted "horse box," was in service in England in 1838. The car was equipped with a "mail catcher," consisting of a net that could be swung out from the side of the car to retrieve pouches suspended along the track. France, too, had its RPO, called "Le Bureau Ambulant," long before the idea was contemplated in the United States. Though it originated on a small scale, the idea of distributing mail in transit on postal rail cars, thereby reducing the need for distributing post offices, slowly caught on.

Impetus for the idea of distributing the mails in transit gained valuable momentum under Third Assistant Postmaster General A. N. Zevely, who convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1864. At that meeting, it was determined that the Post Office Department would try the experiment of railway postal service, and two special agents, George B. Armstrong and Harrison Park, were designated to test its practicality.

The department divided the states and territories into western and eastern divisions. Armstrong controlled the western division, comprising all the states and territories west of the east line of Indiana and south of the Ohio River, and Harrison Park directed the eastern division. The first railway postal route in operation was on the Iowa division of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa, on August 28, 1864. In the east, railway postal cars were placed on the Pennsylvania Central and Erie railroads, all in 1864. In 1865 and 1866 additional roads received railway postal routes as the Post Office Department became satisfied that the system was not only practicable but was meeting the needs of the people and the department.

From 1867 onward, the Post Office Department introduced railway postal service on main trunk lines and more important roads whenever it could be done without demanding too large an amount for the extra accommodations. On average, two clerks were assigned to the cars, although on some routes it was necessary to have more because of the large amount of mails to be distributed, such as on the morning run between Portland, Maine, and Boston, when three men were required on both the day and night runs.

Early clerks' knowledge of mail distribution, geography, and processing of mail was rudimentary, and facilities afforded for studying were limited. Clerks usually met informally in small groups at junction points along the line to study maps and share information about what mail could best be handled by their lines. In 1868, during the tenure of Armstrong and Park, the first recorded schemes, showing maps of a state which helped clerks understand the distribution of the mails, were implemented along with checks to detect errors in processed mail.

Under the guidance of General Superintendent George S. Bangs from 1871 to 1876, the Railway Mail Service instituted separation of the mails by states, an innovation that further served to reduce backups of mail by dispatching the mail for each state to the most distant railway post office that could process it. The number of clerks in the railway postal service, including route agents, mail route messengers, and local agents, reached 2,286, and the number of miles of railroad upon which mail was carried totaled 70,083.

The Ward mail-bag catcher, first used in 1869, grew in acceptance and use by clerks. Before 1869, a mail clerk used only his arm to catch mail while the train was in motion. The Ward device, which used a steel catcher arm affixed to the door of railway post office cars, allowed clerks to extend the catcher arm at selected points on the route and pick up mail from a fixed crane on the fly. Bangs was also a proponent of the "fast mails," and in his 1874 annual report, he identified the need for a fast and exclusive mail train between New York and Chicago "designed to expedite the movement of mail from the east to the west and cover the distance in about twenty-four hours."

With help from participating railroads, namely the New York Central and the Pennsylvania railroads, the first five-car train was assembled on September 16, 1875. The train traveled from New York City to Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, and Chicago on its first trip and carried more than 33 tons of mail.

From September 16, 1875, to July 22, 1876, the fast mail never missed a single connection and failed to arrive in Chicago on time only on three occasions. On trips east, the train failed to arrive in New York on time only once. The effect of the fast mails on the overall mail distribution system was to reduce the time in transit and promote efficiency of service, because the fast mail made connections at all important junctions serviced by the regular trains from throughout the country. Though an operational success, the fast mail lasted in its original form only from September 1875 to July 1876, when Congress instituted a 10-percent reduction in service.

Though cut back, fast mail service led to the establishment of additional railway post office lines between New York, St. Louis, and Cincinnati via the Pennsylvania Railroad and its connections with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Indianapolis.

The Middle Years, 1876–1911
Labor Relations and the Railway Mail Service

Between February 4, 1876, and March 19, 1889, the Railway Mail Service expanded from 8 to 11 divisions. On August 1, 1882, Order No. 354 of the postmaster general reorganized the railway mail service, set classifications, and fixed salaries for its employees. Route agents, mail messengers, and local agents were no longer part of the service employees were known as railway postal clerks, and all rail lines covered by the service were referred to as railway post offices.

On May 1, 1889, the Railway Postal Service became part of the classified civil service, and by 1896 all promotions were based on rules prescribed by the Civil Service Commission. Under civil service rules, after passing a competitive entrance exam for the service, advancement and promotion were based on merit, determined through an ongoing process. For railway mail clerks, the heart of the merit promotion process that determined a clerk's standing in the civil service system was the card case examination.

Card case examinations tested clerks on the locations of urban and rural post offices in states, connecting and intersecting railway post offices, mail distribution routes, and postal regulations. The examinations were generally administered at the office of the division superintendent, using a letter case consisting of pigeonholes and boxes labeled with the names of various railway and local post offices.

During an examination, the clerk received three-by-five-inch cards bearing the written address of each post office in a state, and he was required to correctly distribute the cards from memory. The clerk was questioned as to his knowledge of connections and his printed book of instructions. The examiner noted the time consumed in distributing cards, and these times became a part of the clerk's record. The clerk then received a statement of the results of the examination as well as information on the subject of his next examination.

All reexaminations were made at such times as the division superintendent might designate. Examinations were frequent enough to provide a continuous record of a clerk's efficiency, and railway postal clerks were expected to score between 97 and 99 percent on their exams. The proper dispatch of the mails via multiple railway postal routes required considerable study. Each line served a specific territory, and a clerk assigned to any line was required to learn the territory served by the line and maintain examination grades on several states, passing review examinations at least once every three years.

A mail car from the New York Central line, one of the busiest mail carriers. (Records of the Post Office Department, RG 28)

The postmaster general's 1896 annual report for the Railway Mail Service indicates that the mails were carried on 172,794 miles of railroad, and 6,779 postal clerks were employed on 152,825 miles of traveling post offices that included railroads, steamboats, and electric cars. The report also chronicled improvements in railway post office car construction that included cars with vestibules (enclosed passages between passenger cars of a train), larger and safer interior lighting, and better couplers and buffers between railroad cars. All of these improvements enhanced clerks' chances for survival in derailments and railroad wrecks.

The issue of safety on the job and working conditions loomed particularly large for railway mail clerks as the 1890s drew to a close. Casualty figures for the years 1877 to 1896 showed that 94 clerks were killed in the line of duty, and 821 were seriously injured on the job through derailments, falls, drownings, fires, and other work-related accidents.

Among those other work-related accidents were train robberies, which, although infrequent, plagued the railway mail service from the 1860s through the 1920s, when men such as Jesse and Frank James and later the Newton and De Autremont brothers made being a railway mail clerk dangerous at times. The potential for violence and the threat from robberies led to the arming of railway postal clerks.

For the Railway Mail Service, the opening years of the 20th century were marked by continuing safety problems associated with the use of wooden railway postal cars, unsanitary working conditions in many of those cars, and the requirement on many occasions for clerks to work overtime beyond an eight-hour day without compensation. Such instances, coupled with the failure on the part of Post Office Department management to address employee grievances in a rapid manner, forced employees through their service-craft organizations to take a more militant stance.

Through the National Association of Railway Postal Clerks, postal employees appealed to the public and to Congress. An officer of the organization was subsequently removed from the service because such activity was banned under a "gag rule" issued by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Roosevelt's series of gag orders prohibited employees of the United States, individually or through organizations, "to solicit an increase in pay or to influence or attempt to influence in their own interest, any other legislation whatever, either before Congress or its committees, or in anyway save through the heads of the Department." In 1909 President William Howard Taft issued an order forbidding employees to respond to any request for information by Congress, except through the department head. These orders crippled the postal unions but gained for them sympathy and friends among the members of Congress. After an extended investigation, the Lloyd-LaFollette Act of 1912 rescinded the gag rule and gave employees more security in employment and freedom to engage in union activity.

Ride rules

In the event of an evacuation, guests must be able to walk unaided for a minimum of 100 metres on uneven surfaces with minimal lighting, and up at least 70 steep steps.

  • Arrive at Mail Rail Lower Ground Floor at the time printed on your ticket.
  • Upon arrival, you will be allocated to a ride as close to the time printed on your ticket as possible. At peak times, you may be required to queue for a short period.
  • Latecomers will not be admitted on the ride except at our discretion. See Ticket Terms & Conditions for more details.

Railroads’ Role, 1950-2000

This graph shows how tonnage was carried by the different forms of freight transportation.

Container train leaving the Port of Los Angeles

Two 4000-horsepower diesel locomotive units can be seen, painted blue, pulling a special train of "double-stacked" container cars. Note the cranes (painted dark red here) in the background for on-loading/off-loading containers to or from ships. Overland, the same containers travel long distances on railroad cars such as these, or on special truck trailers (called "chassis") designed to carry containers by highway on shorter trips to and from ports.

Inside the Railway Mail Car

The exterior of the Railway Mail Service car on exhibit in the Museum's atrium was fabricated by exhibition designers. The interior consists of authentic furniture and pieces removed from a retired Railway Mail Service car.

Visitors are invited to explore the Museum's mail car, and watch a video highlighting the railway mail clerks and their work.

Sorting mail on moving trains was one of the postal service's great innovations. After the Civil War, Post Office officials worked to decentralize operations, concentrating on the growing volume of mail carried on the nation's rail lines.

Mailbags left untouched on railcar floors were now emptied and their contents processed as the train sped toward its destination. This new method of sorting mail en route was developed just as railroads were connecting every corner of the country.

By the early 1900s, railroads were critical to postal operations. Like Union Station in Washington, D.C., located adjacent to the City Post Office Building, the Post Office Department ordered that all new main post offices in large cities be built as near as possible to the principal railroad station.

Railway mail clerks had little room to maneuver as they worked the mail en route.

Railway Post Office clerks were considered the elite of the postal service's employees. Their jobs were exhausting and dangerous, their entrance tests demanding—a passing grade was considered 97%. They were required to sort 600 pieces of mail an hour. To ensure that the clerks' skills didn't rust, they were tested from time to time to ensure they could maintain that pace.

These clerks had remarkable camaraderie, helping each other out as needed. As one retired clerk put it, "nobody sat down until everyone was finished." The clerks adopted a fascinating shorthand language for their work, including the term "nixie" for an unsortable or misaddressed letter and "bum" for a damaged or empty mail sack. Before leaving the station, one clerk might yell "throw the bums out," meaning to toss out the empty mailbags. Another could yell, "Seventy-six in the house," noting that the mail from Trail #76 was on board. Since there was no time to read an entire mail label, clerks shortened them into nonsense phrases. Thus, the announcement of mail from the "New York and Pittsburgh Train 11, two, from Madison Square Station, New York, New York," transformed into the cry "From the Madhouse with a two!"

Even when empty, there was little space to move around on the mail car.

Railway Mail Service clerks worked in cramped quarters on moving trains.

From the 1870s-1940s, trains moved most of America's mail. The closer a post office was to the train station, the faster mail could be moved.

Even when empty, there was little space to move around on the mail car.

Railway Mail Service clerks worked in cramped quarters on moving trains.

From the 1870s-1940s, trains moved most of America's mail. The closer a post office was to the train station, the faster mail could be moved.

Railroaders in Olive Drab: The Military Railway Service in WWII

In July 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston dramatically demonstrated the importance of railroads in modern warfare when he moved 12,000 troops by rail from Piedmont Station (now Delaplane), Virginia, to Manassas Junction, a distance of about fifty miles, to reinforce the Confederate forces assembled southwest of Washington, DC. The move took only about one-third the time it would have taken for the troops to cover that distance by marching, and they arrived ready to fight. The reinforcements surprised the Union forces and contributed to the rebel victory on 21 July at the First Battle of Bull Run. It was but the first effort to transport large numbers of soldiers during the Civil War by rail. Railroads were so important that the War Department organized the U.S. Military Railroads and the Railroad Construction Corps to repair, operate, and maintain rail lines as the Union Army moved into Confederate territory. Both organizations relied heavily on experienced railroad executives and engineers who were commissioned as volunteer officers and worked under the supervision of the Quartermaster General of the Union Army, Major General Montgomery C. Meigs.

The concept of commissioning experienced railroad men into the Army continued in World War I under the auspices of the Military Railway Service (MRS) operated by the Corps of Engineers. Regular Army colonels commanded engineer regiments organized as railroad units. Professional railroaders commissioned as lieutenant colonels served as the regimental executive officer. Between World Wars I and II, the Corps of Engineers determined that the regiment was not the best organization for operating railroads. Engineer Reserve officers who were railroad men in their civilian careers helped design appropriate units for military rail operations. They decided to use the lowest organizational element of American railroads, divisions, as the basis of the new organization. In a railroad division, a superintendent had the responsibility to maintain mainline tracks, sidings, terminals, shops, and structures required to operate trains over a designated section of rail line. The division also maintained and operated the locomotives and cars. Professional railroaders and Army engineers designed a railway operating battalion that mirrored the functions of the civilian railroad division.

The mission of a railway operating battalion was to manage and maintain a designated section of a military railway in a theater of operations. Unlike civilian railroads, however, the battalions also had to be prepared to destroy the line it operated. In general, a railway operating battalion could maintain and operate between ninety and 150 miles of single-track railroad, although its actual area of responsibility in wartime depended on the military situation. When conducting rail operations in friendly areas or occupied territory, the battalion used local civilian technical and skilled railway employees to augment its capabilities, but they had to be supervised by military personnel to safeguard against possible sabotage. It also presented challenges to the English-speaking American soldier-railroaders who were not always familiar with how other countries operated their railways.

The organization of a railway operating battalion paralleled a typical Army battalion with a headquarters company and three or four lettered companies. Each company had a unique organization with specific capabilities corresponding to the organization of a civilian railroad division. Headquarters company dispatched trains, supplies, and signals. Company A repaired and maintained track and associated equipment such as switches, bridges, water tanks, signal equipment, and buildings. The company had two platoons, one for bridge and building maintenance and one to maintain track. Company B operated the roundhouse and repaired and maintained rolling stock—locomotives and cars. It also had two platoons, one to repair locomotives, the other to repair cars. Locomotives and railway cars were not assigned to the battalion but moved through the entire railway system as needed. Company C was the largest unit in the battalion with two platoons, each of which had twenty-five crews to operate trains, yards, and stations in the battalion’s area of responsibility. In areas of the world where there were large numbers of electric trains, such as Europe, a Company D could be added to the battalion to maintain the electrical supply system.

Not only did the battalion organization reflect the civilian railroad division, the table of organization correlated military positions to their civilian counterparts. The battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, was equivalent to a division superintendent in a commercial railroad. The company commanders, all captains, equated to their counterparts in civilian railroads: a division engineer commanded Company A, a master mechanic commanded Company B, and a trainmaster commanded Company C. Platoon leaders had similar designated civilian specialties. Many of the enlisted soldiers were experienced railroad men who performed essentially the same jobs in the Army as they did in their civilian professions. While the emphasis was on railroading, the soldiers attended basic combat training and the battalions all conducted disciplinary, physical, combat, and technical training in accordance with appropriate Army field manuals.

To find and train officers and men for the new battalions, the Corps of Engineers developed an Affiliation Plan whereby commercial railroads in the United States sponsored specific units in the MRS. Under the plan, a commercial railroad nominated officers based on their technical duties. After passing a physical examination, they were commissioned as Reserve officers in the Army and assigned to appropriate positions in the battalion sponsored by the railroad to provide a cadre of professional railroad men.

The next higher headquarters for a railway operating battalion was a railway grand division that corresponded to the office of a general superintendent in a civilian railroad and oversaw the operations of several divisions. A grand division typically included three or four operating battalions, a shop battalion, and a base depot company. Shop battalions handled major repairs, construction, and overhaul of equipment while the base depot company provided supplies. Theaters of operations with more than one grand division established an MRS headquarters.

On 18 June 1941, the Army organized the 711th Railway Operating Battalion, the first of its kind, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Unlike other railway operating battalions, it did not have a civilian company sponsoring it. The intent was to rotate officers and enlisted men through the battalion for short tours of duty for training. Officers from ten different American railroads staffed the battalion, and a cadre of twenty-eight enlisted men came from the Engineer School Detachment at Fort Belvoir. Several hundred men with railroad experience were also assigned from the Engineer Replacement Center on the post. Within forty-eight days of activation, the battalion had rehabilitated the long-neglected four-and-a-half mile Quartermaster railroad that served the post. The work included replacing thousands of ties, repairing several bridges, and installing twenty culverts. Its next assignment was a bit more challenging.

The battalion moved to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, in August 1941, where it began work on a training facility for railway operating battalions as they were called to active duty. Work began using rented earthmoving equipment operated by soldiers in the 711th until Army equipment became available. The first track was laid in September, and in October, the 91st and 93d Engineer Battalions, both manned by African American soldiers, arrived to assist with the construction. More than 6,000 troops worked on the line. During the course of building the railroad, the 98th, 383d, and 331st Engineer Battalions, as well as several dump truck companies, worked on the project. On 11 July 1942, a “golden spike” ceremony marked the completion of fifty miles of grading and track laying between Camp Claiborne and Fort Polk. Known as the C&P Railroad for Claiborne and Polk, trainees called it the “Crime and Punishment” or the “Worst Railroad on Earth” because it was built on unstable ground, making derailments common. To make the training more realistic, the twenty-five bridges along the line were periodically blown up so maintenance teams from the battalions in training could rebuild them. The C&P included rail yards at each end of the line and engine-house facilities at Camp Claiborne. The telegraph and telephone line used to dispatch trains was erected by the 26th Signal Construction Battalion. Rolling stock included nine oil burning locomotives and almost 100 cars, including coaches, gondolas, boxcars, flatcars, refrigerator cars, and cabooses.

After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the Army activated additional railway operating battalions under the Affiliation Plan. In March 1942, the 727th Railway Operating Battalion, sponsored by the Southern Railway Company, became the first battalion to be activated after the war began, followed in April by the 713th, affiliated with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company. Most of the officers and many of the enlisted men were experienced railroaders, but the new battalions included men drawn from Army training centers who needed to be trained. The newly organized battalions also had to learn how to operate efficiently as units, so the War Department contracted with commercial railroads to provide on-the-job training. For example, an Army train crew would accompany a train manned by civilians to learn operating rules and railroad techniques. The same procedure was followed for other specialties in the battalion with soldiers working alongside their civilian counterparts to learn the basics of railroading. The 713th trained on the Santa Fe line near Clovis, New Mexico, while the 727th went to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to train on the Southern Railroad between Meridian, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana. When the 730th Railway Operating Battalion was activated in May, its sponsoring company, the Pennsylvania Railroad, trained the unit on its line near Fort Wayne, Indiana.

As the war effort increased, the War Department activated additional railway units including grand divisions to coordinate operations in overseas theaters of operations and shop battalions to support the operating battalions. In November 1942, the Transportation Corps assumed responsibility for the MRS. During World War II, the MRS operated in every theater of operations where there were American forces. At its peak, it included eleven grand divisions, thirty-three railway operating battalions, and eleven railway shop battalions. A variety of engineer, signal, and military police units provided support to the railroaders.

In September 1942, a detachment of men from the 713th and 727th Railway Operating Battalions became the first soldier railroaders to deploy outside the contiguous United States when they left Clovis, New Mexico, to assume operations of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Alaska. In November, the unit was designated the 770th Railway Operating Detachment. In December, two railway operating battalions deployed to theaters overseas. The 711th, which built the C&P Railroad in Louisiana, went to Iran while the 727th headed for North Africa.

The 711th Railway Operating Battalion arrived in Khorramshahr, Iran, a port city on the Persian Gulf, and began operations in January 1943 making up trains and moving them out of the port before taking responsibility for sections of the line. The 711th was joined by the 730th Railway Operating Battalion (Pennsylvania Railroad) and two shop battalions, the 754th (Southern Pacific Company) and 762d (American Locomotive Company, Baldwin Locomotive Company, Electro-Motive Corporation) Railway Shop Battalions. The 702d Railway Grand Division, staffed mainly by railroad men from the Union Pacific Railroad, coordinated the operations of the four battalions in operating the Iranian State Railway which carried three out of five tons of Lend-Lease material shipped to the Soviet Union through the Persian Corridor during World War II. Although the railway operating battalions were designed to operate ninety to 150 miles of line, in Iran the 711th operated 388 miles, and the 730th 289 miles. Creation of the 1st Provisional Railway Operating Battalion, later designated the 791st Railway Operating Battalion, by taking men from the battalions already in Iran plus personnel from other units in the command who had prewar railroad experience, helped reduce the distances. The new unit took over a 221-mile stretch of mountainous country, leaving the 711th with 258 miles and the 730th with 198, still more than the doctrinal guidelines.

During the time the MRS operated the Iranian State Railway, it handled more than four million long tons of freight. In addition to the freight, special passenger trains carried 16,000 Iranian military personnel, 14,000 Polish war refugees, 40,000 British troops, and 15,000 Russian ex-prisoners of war. During the Muslim holy days from 22 February to 21 April 1944, 21,000 pilgrims traveled on trains operated by the MRS. The last American soldier railroaders left Iran in July 1945.

When the Americans and British began planning for an invasion of North Africa, logisticians estimated that it would require thirty-four trains a day to move 5,000 tons a month from the ports of debarkation at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers to keep Allied forces supplied. The MRS deployed five operating and two shop battalions to keep the required supplies moving. The first railway operating battalion, the 727th, arrived in Africa in December 1942. In January 1943, the 701st Railway Grand Division, sponsored by the New York Central Railroad, was activated at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. After a brief training period in St. Paul monitoring troop trains and studying car records and other documents in the Twin City terminals, the headquarters traveled by train to New York where it boarded the USS Orizaba as part of the Allied forces bound for North Africa. By May, the 701st was in Casablanca where it coordinated the work of three railway operating battalions, the 715th (Illinois Central Railroad), 719th (Texas and New Orleans Railroad Company), and 759th (Missouri Pacific Railroad).

Railroading in North Africa proved to be a challenge. Trains were operated by British, French, and American crews assisted by Arab civilians. With a variety of languages among the railroaders, the crew often used hand signals, although that was not always a solution. For example, the U.S. signal for “go” or “highball it” in railroad terms meant “stop!” in the French system used in North Africa. Another quirk was that French locomotives in North Africa did not have seats for engineers or firemen as American ones did, so crews had to stand for hours on end while they were underway.

In spite of the difficulties, the MRS was moving about 90,000 tons of freight a week by June 1943. At its peak the MRS operated 1,905 miles of railway in North Africa. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, impressed with the work of the soldier-railroaders, wrote that “When we went into North Africa the railway could deliver a maximum of 900 tons of supplies…Yankee energy and modern American methods of operation…increased the daily tonnage to 3000.”

After freeing North Africa from German occupation the Allies’ next move was to Sicily, and MRS personnel went with them. Three days after the initial landings on 10 July 1943 the 727th Railway Operating Battalion went ashore at Licata, Sicily, and immediately began work on the Sicilian railway. Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr. later wrote that the battalion “organized national rail workers, located equipment, had steam up, and made a reconnaissance of the rail lines four hours after landing.” In its first twenty-four hours of operations, the 727th moved 400 tons of supplies forward to the 3d Infantry Division. By the third day it was moving 800 tons. During the campaign in Sicily, the 727th operated 1,373 miles of railway using 300 locomotives and 3,500 freight cars that carried an average of 3,400 tons a day to supply Seventh Army.

On 9 September 1943, the Allies made their first landing on the European mainland at Salerno, Italy. After encountering heavy German resistance, they spent the rest of the month building up men and supplies in the beachhead in preparation for an offensive to capture the port city of Naples. Three days after the first Allied troops entered Naples, the advance party of the 703d Railway Grand Division (Atlantic Coast Railroad Company) reached the port only to find that the combination of Allied bombing and German demolition had left the rail yard in shambles. Technical Sergeant Louis L. Russel of the 713th Railway Operating Battalion described the scene on Wednesday 6 October: “Charred and twisted cars were strewn around haphazardly, with lengths of rail cross ties still attached, pointing toward the sky.” It was a mess, but the next day, First Lieutenant R.H. Anderson, a yardmaster from Newton, Kansas, was optimistic when he said, “I believe we can get a train out of this by Sunday.” With everybody in the battalion, including conductors, engineers, and firemen working to clear the debris, Anderson proved correct. On Saturday, a test train consisting of an old Italian locomotive pushing five cars moved four miles out of the yard. Four days later, six trains moving an average of 450 tons each, rolled to the forward railhead.

With the rail yard back in operation, Naples became the primary port for supplying Fifth Army. From January through September 1944, an average of 136,567 tons of freight a month moved out of Naples by rail. By July 1944, all of the MRS troops that had been in North Africa were in Italy operating 2,478 miles of railway with an average of 250 military trains a day in addition to civilian passenger and freight service. Fifth Army commander Lieutenant General Mark Clark recognized the contributions of the soldier-railroaders in Italy when he presented them with a plaque in 1944 that read in part: “The services performed by the Allied Force Military Railway Service have contributed materially to the military operation of the Fifth Army.”

At the same time Allied forces were fighting in North Africa and Italy, they began to build up forces in England for an invasion of France. In July 1942, the MRS organized the 761st Transportation Company at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, with men taken from the 713th, 727th, and 730th Railway Operating Battalions. In September, the company deployed to Scotland where it operated the Melbourne Military Railway and provided switching service to depots being established by American forces. The first railway operating battalion to arrive in England was the 729th (New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company) in July 1943. By June 1944, when Allied forces landed at Normandy, the MRS had two grand divisions, three operating battalions, and four shop battalions in England. While in England, the American railroaders conducted technical training, prepared American steam and diesel locomotives for use on the continent, and assembled prefabricated railcars shipped from the United States. They also operated sections of the British rail system that carried American troops and supplies.

As in Italy, railroads and yards were prime targets for Allied bombers in the months before the landings in Normandy, France. Two years of bombing raids had destroyed railroad facilities and twisted tracks into extraordinary shapes. Eleven days after the Allies landed on 6 June 1944, a small detachment of MRS troops arrived to assess the railroad facilities in the beachhead, estimate damage to rails and yards, and locate available locomotives. Using a Jeep equipped with flanged wheels, the detachment surveyed the lines from the landing area to the port of Cherbourg. On 2 July, the 729th Railway Operating Battalion arrived in Normandy and took over operations at the Cherbourg terminals. Assisted by French engine crews and volunteers, the American railroaders repaired roundhouses, shop buildings, engines, and rolling stock while Army engineers cleared the rail line from Cherbourg to Carentan. Nine days after arriving in France, the 729th operated the first passenger train between the two cities.

The 720th Railway Operating Battalion (Chicago and North Western Railway) arrived in France on 15 July and began to rehabilitate and operate approximately sixty-two miles of track between Bayeux and Lisieux. Three days later, the 757th Railway Shop Battalion (Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad) went to work at Cherbourg. In August, another three operating battalions and two more shop battalions arrived. By the end of the month, the MRS was operating 1,006 miles of track and had carried 29,450 passengers on 251 trains and moved 136,169 tons of military freight on 991 trains.

On 15 August, the Allies landed in southern France. One of the goals of that operation was to open the ports of Toulon and Marseilles and establish a southern line of communications to augment the flow of equipment and supplies to the Allied armies in Europe. MRS troops supporting the operation came from Italy. Two of the most experienced operating battalions, the 713th and 727th, deployed to Marseilles and began operations at the end of August. Unlike the situations in Italy and northern France, the ports were not heavily damaged by Allied bombing or German demolitions. In October, the MRS operated 1,897 trains hauling 640,561 tons of freight in support of the Sixth Army Group. General Jacob Devers, commanding the army group, commended MRS troops when he wrote: “I want to send my congratulations to you and your splendid achievement in opening and maintaining the railroad system in southern France since the invasion of our forces.”

Grand divisions, operating battalions, and shop battalions continued to deploy to both northern and southern France to support the Allied forces rolling into Germany. As new battalions arrived, the ones already on the continent moved forward behind the advancing armies. In March 1945, the 729th, the first operating battalion to arrive in France, began transporting rail and construction material to Army engineers building a bridge over the Rhine River at Wesel, Germany. On 9 April, the 720th operated the first train across the new bridge. In its first thirty days of operation, 273,141 tons of freight moved east across the bridge while another 403,656 tons and 309,000 displaced persons moved west.

In May 1945, when the war in Europe ended, the MRS included seven grand divisions, twenty-four operating battalions, seven shop battalions, and a variety of depot and maintenance units as well as eight battalions and two separate companies of military police. Between D-Day at Normandy and V-E Day, MRS loaded and moved more than eighteen million tons of military freight. On 7 June 1945, American railroaders were operating 1,937 locomotives, 34,588 freight cars, and 25,150 miles of track in western Europe. Demobilization of railway units began shortly after V-E Day. The largest contingent of American soldier railroaders was in western Europe with more than 26,600 officers and enlisted men serving there by the end of the war. The last MRS unit, the 716th Railway Operating Battalion (Southern Pacific Company) left Europe in February 1946.

In addition to Europe and North Africa, MRS units operated railroads in India, Burma, and the Philippine Islands. Railway units in India supported construction of the Ledo Road and the airfield used for the airlift over the Himalaya Mountains that provided logistical support to the Chinese. They also supported British and the American forces fighting the Japanese in Burma. The 705th Railway Grand Division (Southern Pacific Company) oversaw military rail operations in India and Burma. The division, along with five railway operating battalions, the 721st (New York Central Railroad), 725th (Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company), 726th (Wabash Railroad Company), 745th (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad), and 748th (Texas and Pacific Railway company) all sailed from Los Angeles aboard the SS Mariposa in December 1943. After thirty-one days at sea they arrived at Bombay, India, in January 1944 to begin operation of sections of the Bengal and Assam Railway.

In India, each of the five operating battalions managed an average of 133 miles of railway. By implementing American techniques, the tonnage carried by the Bengal and Assam Railway increased forty-six percent in the first twenty-six days after the MRS took over. Compared to American railroads, the Indian system was relatively primitive. A unique aspect of railroading in India was the use of elephants to switch cars when locomotives were not available. India also had little in the way of telegraph, telephone, or signal communications. American railroaders installed modern communications equipment to coordinate the increased train movements. They also added 100 miles of double track to facilitate traffic flow. The improvements paid off. Between February 1944 and September 1945, the MRS moved 6,217,143 tons of freight and operated 5,559 passenger trains. The last American railway units left India in October 1945.

There were no requirements for railway units in the Pacific Theater until the Allies reached the Philippine Islands in late 1944. Shortly after the amphibious landings on the island of Luzon in January 1945, a company of MRS troops arrived on the island and began to rehabilitate the rail lines so they could operate the Manila Railway Company. The railroad was in terrible condition due to lack of maintenance, American bombing, and Japanese destruction. While Army engineers rebuilt bridges along the rail line, railway troops repaired locomotives and railcars. The Manila Railway Company had about 712 miles of track on Luzon, but the American forces used only 234 of them designated the Luzon Military Railway. The first train on the line ran on 19 January for a distance of about thirty miles. Because there was no coal the locomotives burned driftwood, pulpwood, and coconut hulls.

Railway supplies began to reach Luzon in February, including locomotives, cars, shop machines, and track material. Eventually fifty-three American-built locomotives and 990 cars reached the island. Several mobile railway workshops deployed to Luzon in March, and in April, two operating battalions, the 737th (New York Central) and the 749th (New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Company) arrived to operate sections of the Luzon Military Railway. By October, MRS troops in the Philippines reached its peak strength of 3,200 officers and enlisted men and 6,010 civilians. Between 1 June and 31 December, they operated a total of 7,410 trains with 48,131 cars. The Army returned control of the Luzon Military Railway back to the Manila Railway Company on 1 January 1946, and the last MRS personnel left the Philippines three months later.

The Military Railway Service was a remarkable team effort made possible by the Affiliation Program the Army and American railroaders developed in the 1930s and implemented as the clouds of global war appeared on the horizon. During World War II the service operated and maintained railroads in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Pacific that totaled more than 22,000 miles. Some 43,500 soldier-railroaders, most of whom brought years of experience with them, served in the Army in every theater of operations moving personnel and freight, often under enemy fire and through extreme weather conditions. Their efforts proved vital to the Allied victory.


Debris clogs the entrance to the old cemetery vault in Georgetown, broken wine bottles, food wrappers, a tattered sleeping bag and pillow, household goods left by homeless people who sleep there on frigid nights.

The tiny 8-by-8-foot brick cell looks the same as it did two centuries ago, when it was used to store corpses headed for the nearby cemetery. Daylight seeps through tiny peepholes in all four walls. Ivy and overgrown grass shield the cell from intruders’ eyes.

Just as homeless men and women find refuge there now, historians say, slaves once sought temporary sanctuary inside the dark vault during their journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

“This was a safe place for the slaves because it was deep in the woods and covered over so that it was only visible from one side. And since bodies of the dead were kept here, nobody would have thought to look inside,” said Neville Waters, 62, a historian who grew up in Georgetown.

“People used to leave food and water and whatever they could down here for the slaves,” he said. “They would come in the vault and rest up before continuing the trip. It was all kept very secret.”

Historians say more than 100,000 blacks escaped slavery between 1825 and 1860 using a network of trails and hiding places known as the Underground Railroad, which stretched from the South to the North, as well as Canada and Mexico.

Though it is known that thousands of slaves escaped from the Washington area -- newspaper ads detailed some escapes, as did records kept by slaveholders -- little documentation is available about specific locations and the names of people who assisted the slaves.

Though historians identify some locations as possible sites, they are quick to note that there is little or no written proof in most cases.

But stories passed down since the early 1800s tell a tale of several stations in the Washington area, from farmhouses in Virginia and Maryland to churches in the District. Of more than 20 possible sites identified in the area, only a few still have all or part of the original buildings used by slaves.

And for every site that has been identified, historians say, there are probably dozens more that will never be known because of the secrecy surrounding the escapes.

“The problem is some of these buildings are going the way of parking lots and other commercial activity,” said Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), who proposed a bill passed into law last October authorizing the National Park Service to study the Underground Railroad and determine the feasibility of establishing a national trail system to commemorate it. In two years, the study will be presented to Congress.

“It’s part of American history,” Kostmayer said. “We literally ripped people from their homes and brought them here manacled to machinery and separated them from their families. America needs to remember the mistreatment toward so many people and the people who helped them to escape.”

Martha Catlin, a historian who chronicles Quaker history, said Grandview, a two-story house on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation in Fort Belvoir, is believed to have been a station.

A church built in 1803 next to what is now Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria is believed to have been used to hide slaves. The old church, called First Colored Baptist Church of Alexandria, is also believed to have been used as a hospital during the Civil War, said church historian Rose Robinson.

The Meeting House, now called Mount Zion United Methodist Church, on 29th Street NW in Georgetown, was used by slaves headed north toward Philadelphia, Waters said. Historians also identified Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street NW, and John Wesley AME Zion Church, then on L Street NW near 18th Street, as refuges.

Quaker history enthusiast Sarah Hadley said Walcott House, on Decatur Place NE near Florida Avenue, also is rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Other sites identified by historians include the former home at 85 E St. SW, where former slave and minister Anthony Bowen hid slaves he had met during regular outings to the Washington wharf. Bowen’s home once sat on the site that is now L’Enfant Plaza.

Assateague and Chincoteague islands, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, also are believed to have been stopovers for slaves who had tried to swim to freedom.

In Maryland, the Indian Creek home of Samuel Green, who was jailed on charges of assisting slaves, was a station, said Phebe Jacobsen, a retired archivist with the Maryland State Archives. Historians say many of the Underground Railroad stations in Maryland were in and around Baltimore.

D.C. historian Louise Daniel Hutchinson said the District’s black churches played a major role by hiding slaves and collecting money to help them resettle.

“This area is rich with this history,” she said. “A lot of the slaves considered this area the promised land. They thought they would receive sanctuary and protection from slavery here.”

The District’s black population soared in the latter half of the 19th century and the new residents included many escaped slaves, historians say.

“The Underground Railroad is significant in history for a number of reasons,” said Vincent deForest, a D.C. historian. “From an African American point of view, it showed that slaves were not passive and that they tried to escape. Harriet Tubman and other African Americans were (prominent figures) on the railroad.”

Several Quakers in the region were among the conductors.

“The house that I lived in as a boy in Loudoun County was a station on the Underground Railroad,” said Werner Janney, 78, citing family and town legend. Janney is the great-nephew of Quaker abolitionist Samuel Janney, who was indicted for inciting slaves to riot after publishing a newspaper article critical of slavery. Samuel Janney’s house, Springdale, is now a bed-and-breakfast on Route 722 near Purcellville.

“There was a hole in the wall covered over by wainscoting that was hidden from view,” Werner Janney said. “He never admitted that he was a conductor because the Underground Railroad was a clandestine operation and Quakers are not supposed to participate in clandestine operations.”

The 5-by-2 1/2-foot cubbyhole is the inn’s back stairway, a narrow passage lighted by a single light bulb that has been added since his family moved.

“Can you imagine going up these stairs with a candle or oil light?” Werner Janney said. “My reaction is that it was much more hidden than it is now. It was very dark.”

The Underground Railroad followed two basic routes: a series of trails from Louisiana and Alabama through the Midwest into Canada, and a Georgia-Carolinas line through Virginia and Maryland and farther north. The trail also stretched into Mexico. Stations were about 20 miles apart.

One trail from the South followed the same path as Interstate 95 does today, said Charlottesville historian Jay Worrall, who spent 20 years chronicling the Underground Railroad in a history of Virginia Quakers he will publish later this year.

“That was slave and plantation country,” he said. “Unlike in West Virginia, where things were calm, there were night patrols and people out looking for runaways in Virginia.”

Many found the old burial vault in Georgetown, next to Mount Zion Cemetery, Waters said. From childhood, he was told stories of slaves who hungered for freedom and the free blacks and abolitionists who helped them attain it, Waters said.

“This place is a part of American history,” he said. “Not just black history.”


These sites have been identified by historians as possible stations in the

1 -- Old Burial Vault, on the site of what is now Mount Zion Cemetery, 2600

Q St. NW, in Georgetown. Vault was a stop on the route where black people

2 -- Montgomery Street Baptist Church, on the site of what is now Mount

Zion United Methodist Church, 1334 29th St. NW, in Georgetown. Church

members, most of whom were free blacks, assisted slaves because churches

were less likely to be searched by slave hunters.

3 -- Anthony Bowen residence, on the site of what is now L’Enfant Plaza, 85

E St. SW in D.C. Former slave who purchased his freedom used to meet slaves

who had escaped by water at the D.C. wharf and take them to his house for

meals and rest before sending them on their way. 4 -- Grandview House,

Woodlawn Plantation, 9000 Richmond Highway, Fort Belvoir. House was owned

by Jacob Troth, a Quaker abolitionist who formed the Woodlawn Friends

5 -- Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, now Metropolitan AME

6 -- Alexandria Wharf, where several owners of boats assisted slaves by

offering them rides on voyages headed north.

7 -- D.C. Wharf, near Sixth Street SE, where slaves who escaped from the

South went for the last leg of the trip to Philadelphia. Some slaves

stopped in D.C., which was considered “the promised land.”

8 -- Several Quakers who lived in what is now Old Town Alexandria and

opposed slavery are rumored to have been conductors, but no historical

documentation is available to support the claim. Some Quakers who were

outspoken in their opposition to slavery were: Mordechai Miller, who lived

at 212-214 N. Washington St. John Janney, a relative of Samuel Janney’s,

who lived at 211 S. St. Asaph St. Benjamin Hallowell, who lived for a

while at Lloyd House, now a historical and genealogical library, located at

OUTSIDE D.C. AREA (Not Shown on Map)

9 -- Assateague and Chincoteague islands. Slaves swam to freedom to prevent

detection over land by dogs of slave hunters. Boats allegedly met the

slaves and took them on to safety.

10 -- The home of John B. Crenshaw and his son, Nathaniel, who are believed

to have assisted slaves at what was once Rocouncy Farm, five miles north of

Richmond near a road that later became Interstate 95.

11 -- Butterton, Md., in Dorchester County. The home of the Charles Turner,

Railway Post - History

Gwinnett County was created by act of legislature on December 15, 1818 and named for Button Gwinnett (1735-1777), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The first government was convened at Elisha Winn's home (the Winn House). Land for the new county came from Jackson (formerly Franklin) County and from the Indian Cession of 1818. In the east, the land was given out as Headrights. The majority of the county was divided into three districts(5, 6, 7) and distributed through the 1820 Land Lottery in lots of 250 acres each.

Gwinnett sent three representatives James P. Simmons, Richard D. Winn, and Thomas J. P. Hudson to the secession convention in Milledgeville. All three voted against secession (Gwinnett had a relatively low ratio of 1 slave to every 4 whites). During the war, Gwinnett raised 12 companies of infantry, five troops(companies) of cavalry, and one artillery battery. In late October 1864, Gwinnett saw raids and skirmishes in Trickum's Crossroads, Yellow River, Rockbridge, Lawrenceville, Jug Tavern, Rosebud. In 1941, T.A. Barker, the last surviving veteran in Gwinnett, died.

The greatest loss to us was the fire of September 10 th , 1871 which destroyed much of the county's records.

The Railroad
Railroads first came through in 1871 creating both towns and commerce. Known as the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line Railway (1870-1876) then the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railway (1877-1894) then the Southern Railroad (1894-1990) and currently the Norfolk Southern Railway. A second railroad came through central Gwinnett in 1891 with the Georgia, Carolina, and Northern Railway (1886- 1901). This line merged with the Seaboard Airline Railway (CSX since 1986) and operated the Loganville and Lawrenceville Railroad which ran between the two cities from 1898-1932. From 1879-1931 the Southern Railroad operated a passenger service between Atlanta and Toccoa, Georgia called the Airline Belle.

In the 1840s, a stagecoach line ran from the depot at Stone Mountain to Gainesville by way of Lawrenceville. Departing 7:00 a.m. and arriving 5:00 p.m. three days/week. Return trips the other three days.

The first road paved in Gwinnett in 1924 was one of the oldest the Lawrenceville-Decatur road(US 29/GA 8) and by WW II there were 96 miles of paved highways in the county: Dekalb-Barrow(US 29/GA 8), Norcross-Buford(US 23/GA 13), Stone Mountain-Loganville(US 78/GA 10), Lawrenceville-Cumming(GA 20/Hwy 20), Norcross-Cumming(GA 141/Medlock Bridge rd), and Lawrenceville-Duluth(GA 120). Unpaved highways included parts of: Lawrenceville-Snellville(GA 124), Norcross-Cumming(GA 141), Hog Mountain-Barrow(GA 124), Buford-Cumming(GA 20), Lawrenceville-Loganville(GA 20), and Grayson-Snellville(GA 84). Besides these state-maintained roads, the county maintained another 1400 miles.

*1904 - Appears on a 1904 list of cities
*1920 - Appears on a 1920 Seaboard Air Line RR map

Lost to Barrow County in 1914.

Berkely Lake
Incorporated in 1956, Berkely Lake is the newest and smallest city in Gwinnett. Located between Norcross and Duluth, this city was formed to provide services to the community around the man-made Lake Berkely.

Post Office 1850-1893.

West of Rockbridge and Anniston roads. Post Office 1893-1903. (1904, 1920)

Lawrenceville Hwy near Harmony Grove Church Rd. Possibly a station on the Seaboard Air Line known as Caldwell Station. (1920)

Buzzard's Roost
Lawrenceville Hwy near Paden Drive.

Post Office 1838-1901. Lost to Barrow County in 1914. Brasleton Hwy(124) and Mt Moriah Rd. (1920 map shows it well inside Gwinnett)

South of Snellville near Lenora Church and Centerville-Rosebud Roads. Post Office 1892-1903. (1904 - Lawrenceville P.O.)

Located south of Snellville around the intersection of Hwy 124 and Centerville-Rosebud Rd. At one time it was called "Sneezer". Post Office 1879-1903. (1904 - Lawrenceville P.O.)

Chinquapin Grove
See Dacula

Choice's Store
Rockbridge and Lawrenceville Hwy. Post Office as early as 1824 and appears on the Sherman's Atlanta Campaign map.

A stop three miles SW of Lawrenceville on the Seaboard RR. (1904 - Lawrenceville P.O., 1920)

Along the Southern RR between Norcross and the nearest stop Duluth. (1920)

Incorporated since 1905, Dacula started near the town of Chinquapin Grove (where Dacula Elementary now stands). Built on the Seaboard Airline Railway, Dacula's station operated until the 1950s. The town was originally named Hoke or Hokeville but this was short-lived and the first Postmaster created the name Dacula from an odd combination of letters from Decatur and Atlanta. The Chinquapin Grove Post Office operated from 1850-1879 and as Dacula since 1893.

Dillard's Crossroads
Renamed Carl in 1906.

Originally named Howell's Cross Roads for Evan Howell who ran a cotton gin on the Chattahoochee, it was renamed in 1871 to Duluth after the city in Minnesota when the railroad was built. Post Office since 1871.

At Fence Road and Auburn Road. (1904 - Auburn P.O.)

Five Forks
Where Dogwood, River, and Oak roads meet Five Forks-Trickum Road.

Shown on the map in the area of Lilburn-Stone Mtn Rd and Old Tucker Rd. (1920)

Located near Bethesda Methodist Church, it was a station on the Seaboard Railroad and named for a company official. A Post Office operated here from 1893 to 1946. (1904)

Five Forks-Trickum Rd and Killian Hill? School there in 1904. (1920)

Around Braselton Hwy(124) and Mineral Springs Rd west of Cains. (1920)

Founded in 1879 as "Trip" was, in 1907, officially changed to Grayson.

Post Office 1893-1901.

Hog Mountain
One of the oldest communities in Gwinnett. Fort Daniel was built here during the War of 1812 to protect the frontier from indians. The road constructed from here to Fort Standing Peachtree on the Chattahoochee followed the ridge line and is still known as Peachtree Road. Stagecoaches stopped here on the way from Monticello to Gainesville and Stone Mountain to Gainesville.

Howell's Crossing/Crossroads
See Duluth.

Near Lawrenceville-Suwanee Rd and McKendree Church Rd. (1920)

On the 1920 map near Collins Hill Park?. (1920)

The county seat was established in 1820 and named for Capt. James Lawrence (1781-1813), a naval commander during the War of 1812. The four streets that form the square around the courthouse are named for naval hero Commodore Perry, explorer Zebulon Pike soldier of the War of 1812, George Croghan and congressman Augustin Clayton.

Begun as a stop on the Seaboard Airline in 1890, the area called McDaniel was renamed Lilburn in honor of the general superintendent of the railroad, Lilburn Trigg Myers and incorporated in 1910. Post Office since 1893.

Meaning "light for all", Luxomni was a stop on the Seaboard Airline just north of Lilburn near the current intersection of Luxomni Rd and Killian Hill Rd. Post Office since 1893. (1904)

Duluth Hwy(120) near Bunten Rd.

Mountain Park (Trickum)
Where Rockbridge Road crosses the Old Stone Mountain Road (now Five Forks-Trickum Rd). Also known as Possum Corner in the mid-20th century for the nearby Possum Lake (now Lake Lucerne). Trickum was the scene of a cavalry raid in 1864. It also has the Imperial Chinese Garden - the best Chinese restaurant in Gwinnett county.

Was formed as city in 1870 with the coming of the Southern Railroad. Quite a number of baseball players have come from Norcross. Post Office since 1871.

Old Norcross Rd (Norcross-Lawrenceville Rd) and Oakland Rd.

Old Field
Old Peachtree Rd and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Rd.

North of Snellville around the Oak Road and Highpoint Road intersection. (1920)

One of the oldest communities and militia districts in the county, Pinkneyville was centered around the crossroads of the old Peachtree Road and Medlock Road. Near this site was an inn and stagecoach stop. With the coming of the railroad in 1870, commerce moved to the new town of Norcross and Pinckneyville slowly faded away.

A stop on the Southern RR between Norcross and Duluth. (1904 - Norcross P.O.)

Possum Corner
See Mountain Park.

Rabbit Hill
Old Peachtree Rd and Hurricane Shoals Rd. NW of Dacula.

Rest Haven
Incorporated in 1938, Rest Haven is the smallest town in Gwinnett with a population of about 150.

Located at the intersection of Centerville and Rosebud roads. Post Office 1897-1905? (1904 - Loganville P.O.)

Post Office 1839-1865. Thomas McGuire was Postmaster so it was likely in the vicinity of Yellow River and Rockbridge/Hwy124.

Shadow Brook
A stop on the Southern RR between Suwanee and Sugar Hill. (1920)

A city since 1923, Snellville was originally known as New London by 1879 and Snellville since 1885 when the Post Office opened. (1904 - Lawrenceville P.O.)

Sugar Hill
Incorporated in 1939 for 1¼ miles on either side of the Southern Railroad tracks and the same distance south of Buford.

Another railroad town dating back to 1871. The community was formed near an older indian village known as Suwannee Old Town and has had a Post Office since 1838. Incorporated as a city in 1949.

On Pleasant Hill Road near Lawrenceville Hwy. Inferior Court minutes reference a bridge over the creek in 1822 (Hwy 29 near Ronald Reagan Pkwy). Post Office 1839-1903.

See Mountain Park

Post Office established 1832 but later moved across the river to Forsyth County in the area of State Bridge and Medlock Bridge roads. Stagecoaches stopped here on the way to New Echota.

Old Snellville Hwy and Webb Gin House Road. (1920)

Three miles SW of Lawrenceville on US29. (1904 - Lawrenceville P.O.)

Winn's Spur
A stop on the Seaboard Air Line just west of Craig. (1920)

Yellow River
Post Office 1846-1903. Building still stands on Five Forks-Trickum Road.

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