This is an RPO – A Railway Post Office car. These cars, situated at the head end of passenger trains, were the bread-and-butter of the railroads in a time when passenger ridership was diminishing and freight revenues fluctuated. The railroads loved their U S Post Office mail contracts!
Inside this car you’ll find two RPO clerks sorting mail. The clerks were Postal employees, not railroad personnel, and their job was not an easy one: They had to stand in the car as the train ran at speed, sorting mail for cities and towns along the way. This was definitely a “contact sport.” As the train passed though towns without station stops, one of the clerks would position the mailbag for that locale on the floor of the car and brace his back against the forward wall. He’d swing around to be able to see the station mailbag suspended on its crane, and, at the right moment, kick the mailbag on the floor out the door and swing up the catcher arm mounted across the doorway to snag the mailbag hanging from the station crane. Five miles farther down the line – same game. The mail in the snagged bag would then be dumped on the sorting table. This was a continuing process during the clerks’ twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts.
The holstered guns on the belts of our postal clerks represent the .38 Special revolvers which were normally carried by these men. They also were required to carry eighteen cents in change, as they were obligated to sell stamps, since anyone could mail a letter simply by handing it up to the clerk, or by depositing in a slot in the side of the car.
In addition to their in-car duties, the RPO clerks were required to take proficiency tests periodically. These exams consisted of situating the clerk in a room with a miniature version of the pigeon-holes found in the cars. The individual being tested would have to sort a number of small cards into the proper pigeon holes within a predetermined amount of time to remain qualified as an RPO clerk. Passing score? Ninety-five percent! And, fifty years ago, RPO Clerks handled twenty-four billion pieces of mail each year! Sixty years ago, ninety-three percent of all non-local mail moved by train… and a first class stamp cost three cents.
RPO sections and cars were built to Post Office specifications, in fifteen-, thirty- and sixty-foot lengths. Many, such as this one, were combined with baggage or railway express sections in one car. This car is one of five such cars ordered by the Colorado & Southern Railroad from American Car and Foundry and the Standard Steel Car Company in the 1920s. The new cars operated on the Billings and Denver, and Denver and Amarillo RPO routes until these routes were discontinued in 1967. In addition to “normal’ mail, RPO cars have carried such diverse goods as live chicks and bees, saddles, and gold bars. About thirty shipments of gold bars were sent from San Francisco to the Denver Mint via RPO cars, each shipment worth roughly seventy-five million dollars.
RPO cars began disappearing from the rails as early as 1925, as local trains left the tracks as a result of improving roads and automobiles. By 1965, the RPO routes had dropped from fifteen-hundred-fifty to only one hundred ninety. By that time, just thirty-one percent of the nation’s Post Offices were served by rail. Nearly all RPO routes were gone by the end of 1967.
Car 254 was donated to the Colorado Railroad Museum by the Colorado Southern Railroad in 1968.