By Richard Palmer
(During my career as a newspaper reporter I wrote many railroad-related stories. The editors knew this and when such a story idea surfaced they assigned them to me, if I was available. I wrote this one in the Herald-Journal on Monday, Nov. 17, 1969. This was five years into my newspaper career. The headline was "Railway Post Office Makes Last Syracuse Deliveries." I rode the eastbound train to Utica, returning on a later westbound train. As a side note, reporters didn't usually write headlines).
Shortly after Penn Central Train 6 pulled out of the East Syracuse station, one railway postal clerk turned to another and said in the dim light, "It's all over now."
This was the last eastbound run of an RPO through Syracuse. Early Saturday morning, Train No. 3, westbound to Buffalo, came through Syracuse carrying the last RPO, marking the end of an era. In its heyday, the post office department's railroad service was an elite operation. Clerks on RPO's were well-versed in mail sorting routines and had to work much faster than regular clerks in post offices.
Sorting mail on intercity trains, or for that matter, even on branchline runs, required great skill and know-how to make sure postal matter was ready to be delivered when the train arrived at a given station.Today most people would think this was a "pressure job," but even so, these positions were much sought-after. It got to the point that during its heyday, the railway mail system became a well-oiled machine that makes today's system using trucks pale in comparison.
Every man knew it was his duty to help deliver the mail promptly. It was always the case of racing against the train's schedule, for instance, each clerk pitching in to get all the Utica mail sorted and ready for delivery before the train reached that point. The Syracuse mail had to be ready before the train reached here, and so on down the line.
The RPO service dates back to the beginning of railroading. It is said it was first introduced on the Baltimore & Ohio in the 1830s. The chain of railroads that ultimately became the New York Central took over the mail contracts that put the stagecoaches out of business as long ago as 1839-40. The typical mail car of today is 60 feet long, crowded inside with sorting boxes and racks for mail sacks. "Sealed" mail that is not sorted in this fashion, is usually carried in secured "Flexi-Van" cars.
One of the most exciting aspects of RPO operation was watching fast intercity trains snatch a first class mail pouch fastened to a hook passing through a small town at 80 miles per hour. Everything had to be timed correctly for this operation to occur successfully. But it became second nature to RPO clerks. One false move or a slip could mean dropping the mail pouch on the ground, possibly breaking open.
Train 6 had little work Friday. As it pulled out of East Syracuse for the last time - late due to one of the myriad derailments that plague this railroad that has seen better days - the RPO crew was small. It only consisted of six men compared to just a few years' previous when the full contingent was 15.
For the early part of the ride to Utica, the lights were dimmer than those in an intimate restaurant. The car generator was malfunctioning and the men couldn't see what they were doing very well. But soon the train picked up speed and the clerks forgot their sadness and nostalgia and went to work - sorting mail, tying it into bundles, and tossing it into sacks. They wore work clothes. Their street clothes, which they wore on layovers, was hung neatly in their lockers in the car.
These fellows felt a little bitter. However, they all had been given other jobs within the postal service, so they lost no seniority. Still, they had their tales to tell. Of the layovers to Buffalo - two of the men on Friday's crew had been riding together on the same trains for 10 years. They recalled making coffee from the steam in the cars, and constantly racing against time to keep up with the train schedules. At the end of their exhausting trip they would "turn in their guns" (at leas three of them were armed Friday to protect the registered mail sent by RPO).
At the end of their runs today they would also turn in their badges. They packed their grips for the last time and headed for home.
Ben Goodman, superintendent of mobile units for the U.S. Post Office in New York, who himself started his career as a substitute RPO clerk, was on the last eastbound run. He had been brainwashed into the idea that the postal service could now provide better service at less cost with trucks and airplanes.
The railroad, for the time being, will still carry sealed mail out of Syracuse. Some RPO runs are being kept on for a time in other parts of the country, Goodman said, such as between New York and Washington, D.C. But for the most part, with the general decline of rail service and the development of highways and air transportation, the RPO business has been deemed too costly and is being phased out.
Nostalgia remains. In Syracuse, which was once a layover point for RPO runs, an annual reunion clambake draws many active and retired RPO men from all over the east and from as far away as the midwest.
With the termination of RPO service through Syracuse, businessmen will no longer being rushing out to the East Syracuse station to get a letter on a train at the last possible moment. Also, the mailbox at the depot will be removed.
According to Goodman, the new systems do better than the RPO ever did - bringing next-day service from New York City to Chicago, or Los Angeles. But, with this decision for more efficient postal service ends an era of men working night and day in dimly-lit cars, sorting mail, tuning out the constant horn of the locomotive blowing for crossings as it hurtles through the countryside of upstate New York.