February 10, 1941
A unique type of transportation for delivering mail via highways in the United States made its inaugural run. This means of mobility was the Highway Post Office, a large motor vehicle that had been specially outfitted to help process and move the mail as quickly as possible over long distances.
The origins of the Highway Post Office can be traced all the way back to the American Civil War era, when an assistant postmaster general in Chicago established an experimental service for comprehensively sorting through mail on board trains and then delivering it en route. This service entailed having postal clerks use converted baggage cars on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad for this mail-handling process. This experiment in improved mail distribution soon expanded to other rail lines and ultimately resulted in the creation of the Railway Mail Service in 1869.
Over the next several decades, the Railway Mail Service continued to expand and thrive as a major part of the U.S. Post Office Department’s nationwide delivery network. This service was experiencing a rough ride overall by the 1920s, however, as passenger and business traffic on the nation’s trains sharply declined while improved highways across the United States steadily increased. Many railroad companies started scaling back and even eliminating the operation of unprofitable trains, something that brought about the termination of many railway post office cars.
As railroad operations continued to shrink during the 1930s, postal officials began seriously examining the use of highways as another option for the faster-than-average delivery of mail. The Post Office Department leadership eventually asked Congress for authorization to implement this large-scale mail service on the nation’s highways.
After a couple of failed legislative efforts, a bill acceptable to everyone triumphed on Capitol Hill. House Resolution 6424, which provided for the transportation and handling of mail on motor vehicles wherever adequate railroad facilities were not available, passed the House of Representatives in August 1939 and the Senate in June of the following year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the measure into law on July 11, 1940.
“The new Highway Post Office service is one of the most important developments in the field of transportation in recent years,” reported the Chicago-based Suburbanite Economist. “Operated on the same basis as the Railway Mail Service, the mails will be carried on large bus-like trucks completely equipped with all the facilities for sorting, handling and that are included on railway postal cars.”
As an important step towards making the Highway Post Office service a full-fledged reality from coast to coast, postal officials focused on where the first experimental routes for these vehicles should be located. The first experimental route to be selected among 200 possible candidates was a 140-mile (225-3-kilometer) stretch between Washington, D.C., and the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia. This route’s diverse topography, ranging from flat to steep in both urban and rural settings, offered optimal testing conditions for whichever Highway Post Office was chosen for these pioneering test runs.
The vehicle selected for the route was a White Motor Company passenger bus with a pancake-shaped engine under the floor. The vehicle weighed 10 tons (17.2 metric tons), measured 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) in height and eight feet (2.4 meters) in width, had a bumper-to-bumper length of approximately 33 feet (10.1 meters), and came equipped with a gasoline tank with a 105-gallon (397.5-liter) capacity.
This initial Highway Post Office had been customized for mail-handling purposes, with its interior closely resembling that of a railway mail car. There was a sorting table with pigeon holes above it towards the front of the vehicle, and nearby there stood steel racks with hooks for lining up mailbags. There was storage space at the rear of the vehicle for as many as 150 sorted-through mailbags. In addition, the vehicle had letter drops on the outside so that people could easily deposit their mail at stops along the route.
Prior to its first scheduled run for this route, the Highway Post Office paid a visit to the most famous resident in the nation’s capital. On January 20, 1941, the vehicle was driven to the White House for a courtesy call to President Roosevelt. He used the opportunity to deposit the first Highway Post letter.
The first official long-distance trip took place three weeks later, with the Highway Post Office and its crew of five leaving Washington, D.C., at 5:33 a.m. Clyde C. Peters, Claude M. Dellinger, Lovell H. Grove, and Orville R. Liskey were on board as the postal clerks for this first-of-a-kind trip, and Henry Naylor did double duty as the driver and mechanic. The crew, soon making their way into the Virginia countryside, arrived in Harrisonburg just ahead of schedule at 10:49 that morning. They departed Harrisonburg in the Highway Post Office at 4:00 p.m., reaching their destination back in Washington, D.C., at 9:24 that night. The crew had received a total of 10,656 pieces of mail to process in the course of the run.
This new means of postal transportation was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm at various scheduled stops during this maiden trip. About 500 people welcomed the Highway Post Office when it stopped in the city of Fairfax, for example, and a crowd of approximately 2,000 well-wishers turned out to view the vehicle in the town of Woodstock in Shenandoah County.
The momentum of this inaugural run helped the Highway Post Office service get off to a strong and promising start. Highway Post Offices eventually became familiar fixtures on roads throughout the United States. By the mid-1950s, the number of routes for this service had grown to approximately 400.
Inevitably, however, the Highway Post Offices likewise encountered hard times. A big reason for this involved the postal sectional centers that increasingly sprang up across the nation to handle mail on a regional basis and with higher-speed mechanical sorting methods. The Highway Post Office steadily became less relevant; the original route between Washington, D.C., and Harrisonburg, as a matter of fact, was phased out in 1965. The final run of the Highway Post Office occurred in Ohio on June 30, 1974. The last trip of its train counterpart, incidentally, took place three years later.
Photo Credit: National Postal Museum
For more information on the Highway Post Office, please check out https://postalmuseum.si.edu/collections/object-spotlight/highway-post-office-bus