Chicago Cable Cars and Streetcar RPOs

Except for a ceremonial event in 1946, the era of Chicago streetcar RPOs ended on November 21, 1915, less than two years into the CSL era. This photo was taken on October 14, 1938 by Edward Frank Jr., who described the car's colors as tannish yellow gold with gold letters and trimmings. The location is the Lincoln Avenue car barn (aka

Except for a ceremonial event in 1946, the era of Chicago streetcar RPOs ended on November 21, 1915, less than two years into the CSL era. This photo was taken on October 14, 1938 by Edward Frank Jr., who described the car’s colors as tannish yellow gold with gold letters and trimmings. The location is the Lincoln Avenue car barn (aka “station”). According to Don’s Rail Photos, “H2 was built by West Chicago Street Ry in 1895 as 3. It became CRys 3 and renumbered H2 in 1913. It became CSL H2 in 1914.” Presumably it survived at least until 1938 as some sort of work car.

Most people are likely unaware that Chicago once operated an extensive network of cable cars, or that cable cars and streetcars were used as mobile post offices between 1895 and 1915.

Mainline Railway Post Offices were in use in the United States from 1862 to 1978 (with the final year being operated by boat instead of on rails), but for a much briefer era, cable cars and streetcars were also used for mail handling in the following 15 cities*:

Baltimore
Boston
Brooklyn
Chicago
Cincinnati
Cleveland
New Bedford, Massachusetts
New York City
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Rochester, New York
St. Louis
San Francisco
Seattle
Washington, D.C.

*As noted by some of our readers, this list does not include interurban RPOs.

Streetcar RPOs represented a real improvement in service in their time, but eventually were replaced by trucks as vehicles and roads improved in the early 20th century. These special trolleys collected, moved, sorted, and cancelled mail along their routes through the city. Many had slots where mail could be deposited on the street.

The Mobile Post Office Society has published several monographs on streetcar RPO operations, including one on Chicago written by John R. Mason and Raymond A. Fleming.

Chicago’s streetcar RPOs survived into the Surface Lines era, but just briefly, last being used on November 21, 1915. However, there was one later ceremonial operation during a 1946 stamp collector’s convention.

Likewise, although the last Chicago cable car ran in 1906, there was also one later operation at the 1948-49 Chicago Railroad Fair. As we discussed in an earlier post, the success of this fair is widely regarded as having led to the creation of McCormick Place on Chicago’s lakefront.

Although this short cable car demonstration line is long gone, car #524 itself, renumbered to #24, is still in service in San Francisco as of this writing. Here is a history of the car:

Built by the Mahoney Bros., San Francisco, in 1887 for the Ferries & Cliff House Railway (Powell Street Railway). The Mahoney Bros. subcontracted with Burnham-Standeford in Oakland, California, to build its cars. Assigned to the Sacramento-Clay cable car line before the Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the United Railroads transferred it back to the Powell Street cable car lines in 1907. Renumbered from original No. 534 to No. 524 by the Market Street Railway on December 16, 1929.

CSL car #6, a small single truck streetcar RPO from 1891, is preserved at the Fox River Trolley Museum.

As a further example of how times have changed, we offer a couple of rare Chicago transit memos from 1893. Most likely lots of such memos circulated back in the days before e-mail, but few have survived.

The first memo is on Chicago City Railway Co. stationary and is dated November 13, 1893:

Mr. Jos(eph) Gillett.

Please read the following to the men working on the motor cars with you.

The men must work near the door where the light is and stay there, and not stay where it is dark to avoid the use of candles.

By Order of,

Wm. (William) Barthwaite (Master Mechanic)

The second note, on plain paper, is also addressed to the same individual and likely was preserved by him and his heirs:

Joe Gillet (sic?) 23/93

There is a complaint from 39 Barn that many nuts work loose from Scrapers & Sand-boxes. My orders are to prick-punch all nuts.

You will see that this is done.

Respect(fully)

F. Bundy

I had assumed that “prick-punch all nuts” meant to tighten them some more so they don’t come loose, but it turns out I was wrong.  Dan Gornstein says:

Regarding the prick punching, this is a practice of disturbing the bolt threads at the top of a tightened nut, with either a chisel or, as the name suggests, a “prick punch,” with a common name of a Center Punch.

H. Porter adds:

A “prick-punch” is taking a centerpunch and dotting the nut with it after the nut is tightened. This slighly deforms the nut making it less susceptible to vibrating loose. You can buy nuts with this slight deformity already there. Hand tools will still take them on and off.

-David Sadowski

PS- You can read the book Mail By Rail: the Story of the Postal Transportation Service here.  On page 231, the authors cite May 6, 1950 as the date when the “last true trolley car R.P.O.” ran in America on the Pacific electric interurban.

Seth Bramson comments:

I think that interurban electric railways should be included, as they ran under wires, and two that do not appear on the list are Los Angeles (Pacific Electric operated three or four RPO routes) and the one in Maine.

I would have to look it up but there was a trolley RPO route in lower Maine, along the seacoast, I believe and there might have been one in New Hampshire. I can’t think of them right now, but I believe that there were one or two other trolley RPO routes, not shown, perhaps because they were considered interurban.

A couple of other “factoids” regarding electric mail service: Seattle’s RPO was titled “Seattle & Seattle” and operated on a pretty large circuit; Baltimore’s last trolley RPO operated into the early 1930s; Rochester’s street RPOs were titled “Car Collection Service B, C or D”—I don’t think there was an “A;” Buffalo had a horse drawn wagon service with a postmark similar to RPO but I would have to look it up; great interurbans such as the CA&E, CNS & M, CSS & SB, Texas Electric, Illinois Terminal, Sacramento Northern and others did have mail contracts but for closed pouch only, no RPOs.

Because I was working in NY at the time, and had become friendly with the great RPO collector and clerk, Sidney Fingerhood, and went down to Penn Station regularly to see the last RPO trains operate, I was invited, in early July of 1976,  to ride the very last trip of the N Y & Wash RPO, all the way from NY Penn to Washington Union Station, but because I had to be at work the next day, I could only ride to Newark, but at least I can say that I was the only civilian who rode the very last trip of the last rail RPO in America. (And, yes, the comments are correct:  a boat RPO on, I think, Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire did operated until 1978 or thereabouts.)

It was a great and efficient service and the terrible problems with the postal service really began after the destruction of the RPO system, the blame due, in no small part, to Eisenhower, for a good few reasons not necessary to elaborate here.

An example of a

An example of a “duplex” cancellation made on a Chicago streetcar RPO in 1902.

Chicago City Railway cable trailer 209 in October 1938. Supposedly built around 1892, it appears to be a replica fabricated by CSL in 1934 using some original parts. It is now preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum. (Alfred Seibel Photo)

Chicago City Railway cable trailer 209 in October 1938. Supposedly built around 1892, it appears to be a replica fabricated by CSL in 1934 using some original parts. It is now preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum. (Alfred Seibel Photo)

San Francisco Municipal Railway #524 in Chicago on August 28, 1948 at the Chicago Railroad Fair. This was the actual last cable car to operate in Chicago, and was done under the sponsorship of the Western Pacific Railroad. #524 has been renumbered #24 and is still in service in San Francisco after being extensively rebuilt by Muni in 1958. On September 2, 1956, car No. 524 also made the last trip on the Washington-Jackson line as the SF cable car network was consolidated.

San Francisco Municipal Railway #524 in Chicago on August 28, 1948 at the Chicago Railroad Fair. This was the actual last cable car to operate in Chicago, and was done under the sponsorship of the Western Pacific Railroad. #524 has been renumbered #24 and is still in service in San Francisco after being extensively rebuilt by Muni in 1958. On September 2, 1956, car No. 524 also made the last trip on the Washington-Jackson line as the SF cable car network was consolidated.

A rare Chicago City Railway Company memo dated November 13, 1893, ordering a reduction in the use of candles.

A rare Chicago City Railway Company memo dated November 13, 1893, ordering a reduction in the use of candles.

An 1893 note regarding a complaint from "39 Barn," which was located at the corner of 39th (Pershing) and Cottage Grove.

An 1893 note regarding a complaint from “39 Barn,” which was located at the corner of 39th (Pershing) and Cottage Grove.

Chicago streetcar RPO cancellation - Wentworth Avenue line, 7-1-1909.

Chicago streetcar RPO cancellation – Wentworth Avenue line, 7-1-1909.

Chicago streetcar RPO cancellation - North Clark St. line, 11-13-1902.

Chicago streetcar RPO cancellation – North Clark St. line, 11-13-1902.

Chicago streetcar RPO cancellation - Milwaukee Avenue line, 2-26-1906.

Chicago streetcar RPO cancellation – Milwaukee Avenue line, 2-26-1906.

The Mobile Post Office Society published a 72 page monograph on the Chicago streetcar RPO service in 1983.

The Mobile Post Office Society published a 72 page monograph on the Chicago streetcar RPO service in 1983.

St. Louis cable cars on Broadway looking north from Chestnut Street, 1894.

St. Louis cable cars on Broadway looking north from Chestnut Street, 1894.

This commemorative mailing gives November 11, 1929 as the last day of streetcar RPO service in the United States (not counting interurbans).

This commemorative mailing gives November 11, 1929 as the last day of streetcar RPO service in the United States (not counting interurbans).


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American Streetcar R.P.O.s: 1893-1929

Mainline Railway Post Offices were in use in the United States from 1862 to 1978 (with the final year being operated by boat instead of on rails), but for a much briefer era, cable cars and streetcars were also used for mail handling in the following 15 cities*:

Baltimore
Boston
Brooklyn
Chicago
Cincinnati
Cleveland
New Bedford, Massachusetts
New York City
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Rochester, New York
St. Louis
San Francisco
Seattle
Washington, D.C.


*As noted by some of our readers, this list does not include interurban RPOs.

Our latest E-book American Streetcar R.P.O.s collects 12 books on this subject (over 1000 pages in all) onto a DVD data disc that can be read on any computer using Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is free software. All have been out of print for decades and are hard to find. In addition, there is an introductory essay by David Sadowski.

The rolling stock, routes, operations, and cancellation markings of the various American street railway post office systems are covered in detail. The era of the streetcar R.P.O. was relatively brief, covering 1893 to 1929, but it represented an improvement in mail handling over what came before, and it moved a lot of mail. In many places, it was possible to deposit a letter into a mail slot on a streetcar or cable car and have it delivered across town within a short number of hours.

These operations present a very interesting history, but are not well-known to railfans. We feel they deserve greater scrutiny, and therefore we are donating $1 from each sale of this item to the Mobile Post Office Society, in support of their efforts.
# of Discs – 1
Price: $19.95


A Century of Progress – In Color and In Motion

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Our recent post about transportation to and from the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair (aka A Century of Progress) jogged my memory a bit.  I recall reading a while back about the discovery of early color films from the fair, taken in 1933.

There had been color films of a sort prior to 1933, however most of these were much less successful “two-color” processes, which showed red and green but not blue.  For a list of early two-color Hollywood films prior to 1935, go here.  (The technically minded can also delve into great detail on the early Kodak color processes here.)

During 1933, there were experimental versions of either Technicolor or Kodacolor being tested, but these products were not commercially available until 1935.  A national spectacle, attracting millions of visitors, the fair was an obvious event to try out the new three-color films on.

Chicago’s second World’s Fair was also more colorful than its first one in 1893.  The World’s Columbian Exposition featured a neoclassical “White City,” while the 1933 version had multi-colored buildings and lighting of a more modern style.

Fortunately, some color footage from the 1933 edition of A Century of Progress has survived, and can be seen in some of the video links later in this post.  Without these films, our only evidence of color at the fair would be hand-colored postcards, posters, and such.

By comparison, by 1939-40, the time of the New York World’s Fair, 16mm Kodachrome movie film was available to the amateur market.  Consequently, there is a tremendous amount of color footage showing that fair.

The films include footage of the impressive Sky Ride, an aerial cable car that transported visitors to Northerly Island, which was built on landfill in 1928.  Fairgoers were transported nearly 2,000 feet at an altitude of 215 feet above ground.  The cable tram was suspended between to 628-foot high towers at the ends, with observation decks, the highest such points in the city.

Each streamlined “gondola” gave out wisps of steam from its tail, in a manner not unlike the rocket ships in the contemporary Buck Rogers comic strip, which first appeared in 1929.  (The competing Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond did not begin until January 7, 1934.  You can read some of those early strips here.  The movie serial versions of these comics did not appear until after the Chicago fair had closed.)

Apparently, each gondola was named after a different character in the extremely popular but controversial Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program, which had its roots in Chicago.  (While I have read that there were 12 such gondola cars, I’ve only seen pictures of three, named “Amos,” “Andy,” and “Brother Crawford.”)

Both my parents visited the Chicago World’s Fair.  My late father described how he had been stuck on one of the aerial cable cars for several hours when it broke down mid-flight.  My mother, who is now 86, still recalls her trips to the fair when she was 5 or 6 years old.  As you can see from the film footage, it was the type of event that many Chicagoans dressed up for in their finest clothes.

There were other novel modes of transportation at A Century of Progress.  Although the Chicago Surface Lines brochure in our earlier post shows a Dirigible or Zeppelin in the air (and one did visit Chicago in 1933) the films show a Goodyear Blimp in frequent use at the fair.

There was also an experimental auto on display, the streamlined three-wheeled “Dymaxion” car designed by Buckminster Fuller.  Unfortunately, interest in this car was quelled after it was involved in a fatal car crash, although the driver of the Dymaxion was not at fault.

The Chicago World’s Fair had an influence on the city that extended far beyond the 1930s.  Many of its scientific exhibits wound up at the Museum of Science and Industry, where they can be seen today.

The fair site was used for the successful 1948-49 Chicago Railroad Fair, which was also headed up by Lenox Lohr. Among its many exhibits, this fair featured an actual operating San Francisco cable car– the last cable car to be operated in Chicago to date.

While an attempt to continue the railroad fair for a third year was deemed a failure, this did lead to the Chicago Tribune‘s Col. Robert R. McCormick to envision a permanent site for summer exhibitions and fairs on the lakefront.

After years of discussion and planning, this effort resulted in the creation of McCormick Place, which opened in 1960.  Rebuilt after a disastrous 1967 fire, McCormick Place is now the largest convention center in North America.  Since A Century of Progress and the Chicago Railroad Fair successfully brought millions of people to Chicago’s lakefront, it was considered an excellent location for McCormick Place.

As a result, it is perhaps the most important legacy of those earlier fairs.  You can also read more about the genesis of McCormick Place in the book Political Influence by Edward C. Banfield, which we mentioned in an earlier post.

There are still a few traces of the World’s Fair, if you know where to look for them.  Five experimental houses from the fair were moved by barge across Lake Michigan to Beverly Shores, Indiana in 1935, where they remain today, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, comprising the A Century of Progress Architectural District.

Finally, using the final Youtube link below, you can listen to the rousing Chicago Worlds Fair Centennial Celebration March (1933) by composer Carl Mader.

 -David Sadowski

PS- Walt Disney (who was born in Chicago) is known to have visited the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair several times (one of at five such fairs he visited in his lifetime), and after watching some of these videos, it’s not difficult to see how A Century of Progress could have influenced Disneyland.

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