Jim Bradshaw: When the mail moved by rail
In the days before instant messaging and far-reaching cellphones, people used to write letters to each other. Local mail was handled through the hometown post office, but letters going out of town sometimes took another route.
It was sometimes quicker and more convenient — or even required — to take your letter to the train station, rather than the post office. Most of the mainline passenger trains in days gone by had mail cars, in which postal works sorted the mail as the trains rolled on.
Some years ago a reader recalled that in New Iberia, for example, the train depot had two letter boxes. If you’d written to someone who lived to the west of town you posted the letter in a box on the west end of the depot. If your letter was going east, you dropped it in the box on the east end of the station. The station master tossed the west-bound mail bag onto the next west-bound train, and east-bound letters went onto the next train heading that way. The letters were sorted and postmarked in the mail car, then put off of the train at the right town.
The clerks aboard the trains had to work quick to get the mail stamped and sorted, especially if it was going only to the next town, or to a town where the mail had to be transferred to one of the scores of branch lines that linked practically every place in south Louisiana to practically every place else. A letter sorter had to know a lot of geography, as well as which train went to which place.
A train heading west from New Orleans for example, could make stops at Boeuf Station (also known as Amelia Post Office), Ramos, Morgan City, Berwick, Patterson, Bartel, Ricohoc, Bayou Salé (also known as Foster Post Office), Franklin and Baldwin. At Baldwin, a traveler or a mail sack could take a spur line to Glencoe, Cote Blanche (also known as Scally Post Office), and Cypremort Station (also called Louisa Post Office).
Or, continuing on the main line from Baldwin, there were stops at Sorrell Station,
Jeanerette, Olivier, New Iberia, Segura, Burke, Cade, Duchamp, Broussard and Lafayette.
A short line ran from New Iberia to Foufette, Bobacres, Meadows, and Erath, and a branch of this branch ran to Salt Mine (also known as Avery’s Island). A branch from Cade took passengers to Le Lac and St. Martinville.
At Lafayette the passenger or the mail could go north to Carencro, Sunset, Opelousas, Washington, Beggs, Garland, Dubuisson, Whiteville and Barbreck.
A short line traveled east from Carencro to Demitry, Singleton, and Huron Plantation.
Or they could go west to Scott, Duson, Rayne, Ebenezer, Estherwood, Crowley, Mermentau Station, Midland Junction, Jennings, Roanoke, Welsh, Lacassine Station, Chloe, Lake Charles, Westlake, Sulphur Mine Station or Sulphur Post Office, Edgerly, Vinton, and on to Texas.
Not every train stopped at every station on every trip. Some of the towns were “whistle stops,” and the train would keep going unless it was signaled to stop.
In those communities, mail bags were hung from posts next to the railroad track and the postal worker on the train would use a big hook to grab them as the train sped by.
Beginning in the late 1940s, the advent of air mail service brought the beginning of the end for the postal cars, although some continued in operation into the early 1960s, when the postal service began to use machines instead of people to sort the mail.
About the same time, railroads began to cut the number of passenger trains, and that cut further into the number of mail cars.
The conversion to machines at big sectional centers apparently saved money for the post office, But some old-timers still point out that in 1950, when mail cars on 9,000 trains were speeding to every little town in America, a letter dropped off at the local depot would almost always get to its destination in no more than 24 hours.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.