Postcards from the past, when letters took the bus

Ed Vendell shows his father’s presidentialappointment from Pres. Harry Truman

Ed Vendell hit the philatelic pot of gold when Harry Truman made him Ogden’s Postmaster.

What better way to get first crack at all the cool stamps, he was told, and he did.

Vendell was postmaster from 1944 to 1969, a period of great change in both the world and the Postal Service. The passenger train was fading away, and the change was blasting the economic core of cities like Ogden.  Not incidentally, it was also forcing the Postal Service to figure out another way to move the mails.

Except for air mail, rails move the mail across the country. For decades the Postal Service used specially fitted rail cars to carry postal workers who sorted out local mail and dropped it off at whistle stops along the way.

Harry Truman’s signature

But those mail cars had to run on regular schedule, which meant hooking them to passenger trains. When the passenger trains quit, the mail needed another way.

So the Postal Service turned to the highways, the very things that were busily killing off passenger rails.

On Aug. 28, 1949, The Denver and Rio Grande railroad discontinued  passenger service on its Marysvale branch in Northern Utah, leaving 20 communities between Salt lake City and Richfield stranded. The Post Office put trucks into service to fill the gap, and looked around for a more permanent solution.

It settled on buses.

Post card shows a typical Highway Post Officebus.

The Post Office had been using buses for Highway Post Office work since 1940, although the program was interrupted by World War II. After the war it picked up again, eventually running 208 routes around the United States.

Postal workers inside the buses would sort mail for the communities by hand, putting letters into huge racks of pigeon holes on the wall or big mail bags set in racks.

By all accounts it was not fun — railroad cars ride relatively smoothly, while buses have to negotiate turns, chuckholes, traffic and all the rest. News accounts say the workers in back got bumped around a lot.

The Postal Service bought three of the buses, one to go each direction daily and a spare. The first trip, a ceremonial run, was Jan. 22, a Sunday. Instead of mail the bus carried officials and press to record the historic event.

One of the officials was Ed Vendell, Ogden Postmaster.

Vendell took advantage of the day to get every possible postal souvenir he could. They had “first trip” post cards, first trip covers (envelopes with stamps) and even a Highway Post Office picture post card.

The covers have several varieties of stamps and special commemorative “First Trip” cancellation marks. He also got cards with autographs of everyone on the bus, including the driver.

He went along on Monday, the first official mail run, and got more covers and special stamps.

The whole pile was part of a collection of First Day Covers (stamped envelopes cancelled on the first day a new stamp is issued) that Postmaster Vendell left to his son, Ed Vendell, when he died in 1985. Ed Jr. didn’t know what to do with the covers, which have little cash value, so he donated them to the Union Station archive.

A shoebox full of these first day covers found their way to my desk. In sorting them I found the Highway Post Office cards and realized the historic link between the Railroad Post Office and the Highway Post Office.

Union Station has a fully restored RPO car in its collection, and Postmaster Vendell certainly spent a lot of time at Union Station because the station was a key mail

Souvenir post card

sorting site for the whole state.

Ed Vendell volunteers in the Browning-Kimball Car Museum on Wednesday afternoons. When he came in to talk to me he brought a special surprise: His dad’s appointment as postmaster of Ogden, signed by President Harry Truman.

It’s a wonderful historic document that he wanted kept with his dad’s cover collection which is, in its turn, a part of Ogden’s transportation history.

The Highway Post Offices didn’t last. Automatic sorting machines, the Zip code, and then computer sorting, made those guys tossing letters into racks of pigeon holes obsolete. The last HPO stopped running in 1974, but Utah’s lone route quit in 1959.

My special thanks to the Mobile Post Office Society (link to their web site is here — click) where you can find out more about Railroad and Highway Post Offices. The Smithsonian Postal Museum also has some wonderful information on its postal museum blog (click!) and some good detailed information on how the Highway Post Office worked.

Trip 2, showing autographs of the crew andpassengers