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Mail on the Rails

Mail on the Rails

In Western Oklahoma, most of the towns are spaced on the map about the same distance apart. That spacing was determined many years ago by the distance that could be covered in a day by a horse-drawn wagon. Little communities sprang up at those way-points. This little town where we live has had regular mail delivery since 1892. At that time the mail was carried by a man riding on horseback or in a buggy. Currently, several of my family members have been, or still are, postal employees on the East Coast, working each week to sort and deliver mail along rural routes. The subject of mail delivery came acutely to mind yesterday as the TV related news of the weather problems being experienced along the East Coast of the United States. With two inches of ice encasing trees, powerlines, and road surfaces in the South, and more than a foot of drifting and blowing snow along the entire middle and upper Atlantic Region, mail delivery there has become difficult if not impossible. I got to thinking about all the ways in which the mail has been carried throughout the years, and how it got to it’s proper destination. In early years out here on the plains, mail traveling long distances would have been transported by train. That mail was sorted and put in bags by a clerk while rocking, swaying, and bumping along the rails. Assigned stations along the route had little “crane” post offices where their deliveries of rail-carried mail would be accomplished. A small platform by the side of the track was built, with a large post (shaped like the avian neck of a crane) that stood up high enough to hang the mail bag on. When the train came along, the mail clerk on the train could catch the bag of out-going mail with a large hook that he would stick out of the mail-car door. This would catch the mail bag in the the center, and he could take it into the car. At the same time, he would throw off the bag containing the mail that belonged at that station. Mail was expertly exchanged in this way, and the train did not have to stop or slow down its speed. The engineer would blow the train whistle to let the postal clerk know when to raise the hook and catch the hanging bag of out-going mail. The operation was a much anticipated ritual for rural residents, as it provided them with a fairly consistent and steady flow of news and communication with far-distant places and events. Think how co-ordinated and athletic those mail handlers must have been to hook the already hanging bag without damaging it, and, at the same time, throw the designated bag off the train at just the correct place; all while standing in the open door-way of a moving train. This method of mail delivery to local stations took place across this country until the mid 1940’s. An elder gentleman acquaintance in Florida related to me how, as a boy, he used to enjoy trying to catch the bags thrown off the train. Boys of that tiny central Florida town used to compete to see who could catch the most mail bags in a week. The one with the highest weekly tally had the best bragging rights and was the undisputed leader in all the following week’s games.

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One thought on “Mail on the Rails

  1. I had no idea about this! Interesting post, my friend! I would love to have seen this hook and how the whole operation took place. One would indeed have to be fit and athletic to be able to pull off such a feat!

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