Noel Beaudette flashes back fondly to his first shift on what he insists was his best job ever — sorting the mail on trains zipping across Minnesota as a U.S. postal clerk in the 1960s.
“We’d gone up to Duluth and stopped in North Branch on the way back for what we called robbing the box,” said Beaudette, 85, who lives in Rosemount. “We had a key, the train would stop and we’d jump off, open the box and grab a sack of mail. All of a sudden, I realized the train wasn’t going to wait and I had to run and grab a rail to get back on.”
For 100 years in Minnesota, from 1871 to 1971, the Postal Service put a handful of clerks on train cars up to 60 feet long that were configured like rolling post offices, with cubbyholes and slots for receiving, sorting and dispatching mail.
“We’d work like the dickens on overnight rides to Omaha, sorting mail for Iowa, Nebraska and California,” said Beaudette, the third of four generations of postal workers in his family.
“We’d leave from Minneapolis about 10 o’clock at night and could usually get our work done with a hundred miles to go before Omaha — so we’d grab big sacks and make a bed out of ’em.”
Railway Post Offices (RPOs) were interspersed with passenger cars on lines such as the Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder, the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited and the Burlington Zephyr. They’d crisscross the state and nation on a maze of tracks to pick up and deliver letters from sons at war, business contracts, you name it.
“Before the internet and social media, the Railway Post Offices were truly America’s first information highway and the primary way Americans communicated,” said David Thompson of Rosemount, an expert on the mail-by-rail era who wrote an article on RPOs last year for Minnesota History magazine. His father, Arne, served as a foreman on six routes after World War II.
In their heyday in the 1920s, RPOs guaranteed one-day delivery of first-class mail within 500 miles of a letter being posted. “That’s a tough feat to beat today,” Thompson said.
By the late 1960s, automation, trucks and planes had eclipsed the trains’ mail-dispersing dominance and the U.S. Postal Service began to terminate its contracts with the railroads. As the new interstate highway system became more popular, passenger train service dried up and collapsed. Without the postal subsidies that Thompson said provided up to half the passenger trains’ revenue, they could afford to move only freight — not people.
That brings us back to Beaudette — a living link to the mail trains of yesteryear.
His Canadian-born grandfather, Theophile, was a mail carrier who lived in northeast Minneapolis in the late 1800s, according to census records. His late father, Albert, was born in Minneapolis in 1892 and retired after 50 years with the post office — most of that time serving as a “clerk in charge” on mail cars.
Even the oldest of Noel’s four daughters, Stephanie, handled the mail for 20 years before retiring.
“When I mention the Railway Post Offices today, nobody knows what I’m talking about,” Noel Beaudette said.
He began his postal career in the mid-1950s, jumping at the chance to work the mail trains. He said his pay went from $3 to $3.50 an hour and he was paid eight hours for every 6.5 hours worked because he was required to study routing practices at home.
“I feel like I was a member of an exclusive arrangement at a time I was lucky to be there,” he said. “Best job I ever had.”
“You got to get away from the main office,” Beaudette said. “No one was looking over your shoulder.”
Beaudette could pile up hours, not to mention vacation and sick pay, often working one week on and one week off. His time off would add up to a few months a year.
“I could take my daughters to the zoo in the middle of the week when no one was around,” he said.
He recalled the so-called Chicken-Minn run between Chicago and Minneapolis, when three cars would head southeast on different trains in the morning, then link up to bring mail back that night.
To drop off mail in small towns, sacks would be pitched and caught on the station platform; to pick up mail, a swiveling catcher arm attached to the train snatched dangling mail bags from a crane along the tracks.
“You needed precise timing,” Beaudette said. “If you missed the catch, you’d get demerits.”
On show trains like the Zephyr, one mail car would ride along with five coaches, a dining car and bar car.
“We’d take the mail off in St. Paul and ride to Minneapolis in the bar car, enjoying a beer after a long day,” he said.
By the late ’60s, planes were elbowing trains out of the postal business. Beaudette remembered a “feisty foreman” on his mail train when it stopped in La Crosse, Wis.
There were 50 or 60 sacks of mail, so-called airlift in green sacks next to the yellow rail-mail sacks. Beaudette recalled that when his boss was asked to take the green air sacks because planes weren’t flying that day, the foreman declined, saying: “Well, you keep them till they are running.”
When the mail trains were finally squeezed out in the early 1970s, Beaudette opted to stay on and work a door-to-door, mail-carrying route in Bloomington until he retired in 1986 after 30 years.
“If I had the opportunity, I would have paid $50,000 to buy that railway post job,” he said. “I never would have left it if I wasn’t forced to.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks/.