D.C. museum’s RPO is an old friend

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Smithsonian's postal museum in Washington, D.C., includes a Railway Post Office exhibit. The exterior of the car is a reconstruction, but the interior is rich with history. Kevin P. Keefe
Sometimes you encounter old friends in the strangest of places.

That happened to me a couple of weeks ago during a brief visit to Washington, D.C. Our trip included a stop at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., across the street from Union Station. Housed in the old main post office, a neo-classical monument constructed in 1914, the museum has an engaging lineup of exhibits, including an old Star Route horse-drawn wagon, some cool mail delivery trucks, an early mail airplane hanging overhead, and, of course, thousands of stamps.

But none of that was at the top of my agenda. Instead, I headed directly to the southeast corner of the exhibit hall, where a familiar shape beckoned. It was what appeared to be the shell of a heavyweight Railway Post Office car, sans running gear, painted Pullman green and lettered for the Southern Railway.

The exterior of the car is a replica, and a very abbreviated one at that, substantially shorter than a typical RPO. Norfolk Southern financed its construction several years ago. As replicas go, it looks authentic, right down to its rivets and handbrake wheels. But it’s what’s inside that really counts.

That’s where I found my old friend. The interior of the RPO is the real deal, a dazzling array of mail slots, pigeonholes, mail bags, and storage bins, the classic tools of the clerks of the Railway Mail Service. My reaction to seeing it again after nearly 45 years was very personal — and therein lies a tale.

The interior fittings of the Smithsonian's RPO came from a Grand Trunk Western car that, after its mail career was over, helped in the restoration of a big steam engine. Kevin P. Keefe
Back in the summer of 1971, the crew at the Michigan State University Railroad Club was in desperate straits. We were way in over our heads, taking apart Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225 in the middle of the MSU campus, and we discovered we couldn’t get much farther without an indoor space to work on components and store our growing pile of tools. We’d already experienced the theft of $450 worth of tools from the 1225’s locked cab. Yet it was a certainty the university would never let us build a tool shed on the site. 

So we decided to go shopping. On a hot summer day, three of us drove the 55 miles down to Battle Creek where, outside its shops, Grand Trunk Western had a long line of cars for sale, rendered surplus by the advent of Amtrak a few months before.

We were tempted to buy a baggage car, of which there were plenty. Streamlined and roomy, the bags were not that old and offered maximum interior flexibility. But then we spotted a pair of 60-foot heavyweight RPOs, numbered 9683 and 9695. We saw all those mail slots and drawers and all that counter space and decided “this is the car.” Never mind it was built by Pressed Steel Car Co. way back in 1914.

We bought it on the spot: $500, F.O.B. East Lansing. A few weeks later a GTW local dropped the car off at the junction at Trowbridge, after which a C&O switcher came out from Lansing to park it next to the 1225. (The other RPO in Battle Creek, 9695, later ended up in the collection of the Illinois Railway Museum.) 

In the 1970s, former Grand Trunk Western RPO 9583 served as a tool shed and indoor work space for the Michigan State University students restoring Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225. John B. Corns 
The 9683 served the club well for a few years, and eventually made the trip to nearby Owosso, Mich., when the Berkshire was conveyed by MSU to what is now the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI). By this time 1225’s new owners had a shop building at their disposal, so the old RPO, badly in need of repair, was sold to Cleveland’s Midwest Railway Preservation Society, which coveted the car’s roller bearings. When the Postal Museum needed a complete RPO interior, the folks in Cleveland were happy to oblige. 

So what’s RPO 9683 like today? It’s worth a visit, certainly. The interior looks pristine, lovingly restored by museum professionals, although some of the cabinetry has been repositioned as a concession to the smaller size of the car body. There is minimal signage to explain the role of the RPO, but a short video continuously plays with interviews of RPO clerks who once worked on Southern trains out of D.C. Their colorful stories and humorous explanations of jargon give the exhibit life.

I also noticed that the old letter slots, once labeled for such GTW locations as Battle Creek, Flint, and Port Huron, now say Alexandria, Culpeper, and Danville. Norfolk Southern’s prerogative, I suppose, since it paid for the restoration.

GTW 9583 was a classic 60-foot 'full' RPO. The 1914 heavyweight rode on six-wheel trucks retrofitted with roller bearings. Steam Railroading Institute 
An interesting aside: when the club took delivery of the RPO back in 1971, we noticed some of the pigeonholes were lettered for California destinations, a remnant of the days when 9683 would be parked adjacent to a Santa Fe train inside Chicago’s Dearborn Station.

There are railroad museums that provide a richer perspective on the history of the RPO. The Illinois Railway Museum, for instance, occasionally operates its Burlington heavyweight RPO/baggage car and demonstrates catching mail on the fly. In Sacramento, the California State Railroad Museum has a beautifully complete Great Northern RPO, usually staffed by a knowledgeable docent.

My visit with what’s left of the 9683 didn’t last long. I wouldn’t call this a complaint, but I couldn’t help but notice that a small sign inside the car gave full credit to NS and the MRPS, with nary a mention of the MSU Railroad Club. I suppose the average visitor wouldn’t care. But let the record show that, once upon a time, some scruffy college kids plunked down $500 and made all this possible.

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