Remember sending mail by RPO and HPO?

Published 10:35 am Friday, July 9, 2010

Recent publicity about the famous Pony Express used to convey U.S. Mail between St. Joseph, Mo., and California could provide the incentive to mention two more methods once used to transport the nation’s mail from place to place.

About a century ago one of the best and quickest ways to send mail around the nation was with the Railway Post Office or RPO. This mobile method of moving mail was then an important part of the era of passenger trains.

In those days a typical passenger train consisted of an engine, a coal car, a baggage car or two, passenger coaches and the mail car, or better known as the Railway Post Office. I should also add that some passenger trains had Pullman cars or sleepers for longer trips and observation cars for elevated seating in the more scenic parts of the nation.

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Inside the RPO car were several clerks who kept busy sorting mail. At depots where the train stopped for a short time a wagon (and later truck) from the local post office would be waiting. An exchange of incoming and outgoing mail would be quickly made.

For the smaller towns where passenger trains would barely slow down, a different system was once used. Near the depot and right next to the tracks would be a post with an extended arm. On this arm the bag containing the outgoing mail would be hanging. Another arm on the side of the mail car would snag or catch this sack and it would be pulled inside the RPO’s open door. At about the same time a clerk inside the RPO would throw out a sack containing the mail for this town onto the depot’s platform.

After World War II the nation’s passenger trains began to fade away. To replace the RPO system, a new concept called the Highway Post Office, or HPO, was created. This system was sometimes called a rolling post office and had the nickname of “hypo.”

This HPO was similar in appearance to a bus or very large recreational vehicle. Inside each of these vehicles was a driver and one or two clerks.

An article in the Sept. 26, 1954, issue of the Tribu said, “The public is assured of faster mail delivery with the HPO’s, for they replace a number of train and truck routes. Many of them are being used successfully in other parts of the country. …

Besides giving faster service, the HPO’s are a more convenient method of carrying mail, the postal department has discovered. At each stop, the HPO goes directly to the post office. No longer do (postal) employees have to meet trains.”

This same article said the first HPO in Minnesota, and maybe even in Iowa, would be going daily from Albert Lea to Tama, Iowa, starting on Sept. 30, 1954.

The schedule for the 210 mile route to Tama was based on leaving Albert Lea at 2:45 p.m.

Post Offices on this HPO’s route were Twin Lakes and Emmons. In Iowa the itinerary was Lake Mills, Leland, Forest City, Garner, Klemme, Goodell, Belmond, Clarion, Hampton, Iowa Falls, Eldora, Grundy Center, Morrison, Reinbeck, Buckingham, Traer, Toledo and arrival in Tama at 9:30 p.m. (In that era Tama had two railroad depots and excellent east-west train connections.)

The return route left Tama at 2:30 a.m. the next day and arrived in Albert Lea at 10:40 a.m. Then, as already indicated, the return route back to Tama left the city at 2:45 a.m.

Now, right at this point, there’s an odd situation to be considered. At either Goodell or Belmond, Iowa, the local post offices were either opening or closing for the day, based on the HPO’s time schedule. My guess on the procedure used at many of the towns is based on the clerks in the HPO having keys so they could open and close the doors at those post offices to drop off and pick up bags of mail.

I have no idea as to how long the HPO from Albert Lea to Tama operated. Also, there may have been another HPO operating for a few years on an east-west route based on what was once U.S. Highway 16. Does anyone have any more information on this topic?

Special thanks goes to local historical researcher Kevin Savick who contributed the old news article that inspired this column.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.