Mail by Rail: In Edgewater
By: LeRoy Blommaert
Those with an eye for detail might have noticed a strange looking trolley in front of the Ardmore streetcar barn in the photo which appeared in the last issue of the Scrapbook. It was a Rail Post Office (RPO) car. (See Figure 1)
Prior to the development of the interstate highway system and the development of air freight, most intercity mail moved by rail under contract with the U.S. Government. Special cars were developed for this purpose. Mail was not only hauled in these cars but it was sorted as well – by U.S. Post Office employees who rode the rails.
A similar operation occurred on specially designed streetcars in America’s major cities. The first use of an RPO streetcar occurred in St. Louis in December 1891. By the end of the decade, they were in use in Boston, Brooklyn, New York City, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. The streetcars were of course much smaller than the cars used on the main line steam railroads, but they performed the same function though over much shorter distances – hauling and sorting the mail. Their operation, however, was much shorter lived – about 20 years in most cities. One unique feature of the streetcar RPO was that it often had mail slots where one could drop an outgoing letter or postcard; it thus functioned as a moving mailbox!
In Chicago, these cars operated on six routes – two on the south side, two on the north/northwest side, and two on the west side. Each route had its own “RPO” cancellation and these are collected by those interested in postal history. The cancellations that have been identified are: Chicago & Cottage Grove Avenue, Chicago & Millard Avenue, Chicago & Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago & North Clark Street and Chicago & Wentworth Avenue. Figure 2 shows a North Clark Street RPO cancellation. Interestingly, the letter was mailed from Edgewater (present day 5556 Broadway) to Edgewater (present day 5743 Winthrop).
It is the North Clark Street route that is of most interest to us. It really should have been named North Clark Street and Evanston Avenue (present day Broadway) because it operated on Evanston Avenue too. RPO service on the line began in November 1895 and, like all other such Chicago streetcar RPO service, was initially operated by the Railway Mail Service. On July 1, 1900, service on all the lines was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Chicago postmaster.
Sometime in 1901, service on the North Clark Street line was extended from Lakeview to Evanston. Thus it was only from this year that Edgewater acquired RPO service. It operated exclusively on Evanston Avenue in Edgewater. Prior to the extension, the RPO car was a reconfigured horse car that was attached as a trailer to the North Chicago Street Railway cable cars. When the service was extended to Evanston, new, specially built trolley cars were used; however they apparently continued to be pulled by the cable cars between the “Limits” car barn, just south of Diversey, and the southern downtown terminus until October 1906, when cable operations were replaced by electric powered streetcars.
In 1903, disagreements between Chicago and Evanston resulted in the termination of service into Evanston. The northern terminus then became the Rogers Park post office station. In 1908, the northern terminus became the Edgewater post office station, now relocated to a new building at 5501 Evanston Avenue. (This building stood until relatively recently when it was torn down for the construction of a condo. See Figure 3 to see what the building looked like when it was a post office.)
All streetcar RPO service ended in Chicago in November 1915. As even the outlining districts became built up, traffic increased as well, making schedules more difficult to be followed. It was determined that transport of the mail by truck would be more efficient, given that trucks could move down any street and were not limited to a fixed track.
Of course, transport by truck meant that mail could only be hauled but not sorted. However, in the last few months of streetcar RPO service, sorting operations apparently ceased on some of the lines as no cancellations have been found. On the North Clark Street line, no cancellation has been found after September 22, 1914.
One Chicago RPO streetcar has been preserved. It is Chicago Union Traction car #6. Once part of the CTA historical collection, it is now housed at the Fox River Trolley museum in South Elgin, Illinois (see www.foxtrolley.org). It is the same car that was shown in front of the Ardmore power house and car barn. See Figure 4 for a CTA collection photo of RPO, Chicago Union Traction car #8, in operation, location unknown.
Source: John R. Mason & Raymond A. Fleming, Street Car R.P.O. Service in Chicago, Mobile Post Office Society, January 1983.