Railway Post Office Car

Southern Pacific Lines

Narrow-Guage Railway Post Office Car

Built by:

Carter Brothers – circa 1890

Track Gauge:


Donated by:

Southern Pacific Company – 1960


Car No. 12 at the Cerro Gordo Tramway in Keeler, California, about 1939. Photo courtesy OwensValleyHistory.com

Narrow-gauge car No. 12 was built for the South Pacific Coast Railroad by the Carter Brothers carbuilding firm about 1890.  The car is a combination Baggage Car and Railway Post Office and is a typical example of a wooden, open-platform passenger car of the late 19th Century.  A Railway Post Office Car or “R.P.O.” is exactly what the name suggests; it is literally a ‘Post Office on wheels’.   As the train went along its way, letters and packages would be picked up and dropped off at each town along the way.  A specially selected crew of postal workers would cancel the stamps and sort the mail in route.   A hooking mechanism mounted on the outside of the car enabled the crew to pick up or drop off bags of mail “on-the-fly” as the train passed through many towns and junctions without stopping!  Railway mail clerks had one of the toughest jobs in the Post Office Department, sorting mail on swaying and lurching trains.  

The collection of the U.S. Postal Service includes this photo of the interior of an R.P.O. car about 1912.

The R.P.O. system of handling mail was extremely efficient; by the 1880s, railway postal car routes were operating on the vast majority of railroad lines across the U.S.A.    A complex network of interconnected rail routes allowed mail to be transported and delivered in remarkably short periods of time.  The United States Postal Service operated hundreds of R.P.O. cars all across the county, beginning in 1864 and ending in 1977.  Click the link below to see S.P. train #58 pick up a sack of mail “on-the-fly” at Saugus, CA in the 1940s! – historic film remastered by NASS.

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More Interesting Information:

A South Pacific Coast R.R. train pauses at Felton, California about 1903, with Railway Post Office car No. 12 ahead of the coaches.

The South Pacific Coast Railroad was a narrow-gauge line that ran between Santa Cruz and Alameda, California, with a ferry connection at Newark, and later Alameda, that took passengers across the bay to the city of San Francisco.   In the 1880s, Santa Cruz was an important terminal; it was then California’s 3rd busiest shipping port, and the mountains around Santa Cruz were a center of redwood lumbering operations.  Besides hauling lumber and freight, the railroad also offered tourist excursions to the beach at Santa Cruz as well as to the magnificent old-growth redwood forests – both very popular weekend picnic destinations for Victorian-era San Franciscans.  The business on the line was so successful that the competing Southern Pacific Co. bought it in 1887.  In 1906, Southern Pacific converted the line to standard-gauge and transfered the narrow-gauge locomotives and cars to its subsidiaries the Carson & Colorado Railroad and Nevada & California Railroad.  Car No. 12 carried baggage and mail on trains through California’s Owens Valley for several decades over the line that became known as Southern Pacific’s “Keeler Branch”.  The line was closed on April 29, 1960 and several of its narrow-gauge cars were donated to Travel Town.

Southern Pacific car No. 12 in the Owens Valley, about 1955. Photo courtesy OwensValleyHistory.com