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Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Last SP RPO Run

Dave Roth
February 2008
Over 250 people toured our Railway Post Office car (UP 5901) at the Sunol Depot on Saturday, October 13th.  The car was spotted in Sunol to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the final run of an RPO on the Southern Pacific. UP 5901 was an official USPS postal station for the day and Sunol USPS clerk Lina Owsley canceled over 700 pieces of mail in the car as people filed through. Ten former RPO clerks joined us as well as many relatives of former RPO clerks. We received a lot of compliments on the RPO display inside. We have been working on presenting a working RPO, and have been getting technical advice from retired RPO clerk Jim Briggs. Jim was one of the sources Randy Cape used in researching his book The Ghost Trains of SP's Overland Route. Jim made the letter case headers, tied the letter bundles and made sure the mail pouches and sacks were hung right.
Commemorative Cancel 10-13-07
This commemorative cancel was applied to all mail brought to the car.
lina Owsley Cancels the mail
Sunol USPS clerk Lina Owsley canceled over 700 pieces of mail.
Bill Sullivan-Retired RPO clerk
Retired RPO clerk Bill Sullivan shared tales of RPO clerk travels on trains 21-22 and 101-102.
lina Owsley Cancels the mail
Over 250 people toured the car and came to have mail cancelled.
Thanks to the many people that helped put this event together. Rich Anderson, Laura Bajuk, Bob Bradley, Norm Fraga, Jim and Joyce Briggs, Jim Bunger, Randy Cape, Phil Chan, Tom Chandler and the Yaquina Pacific Railroad Historical Society (SP 5132 RPO), Dexter Day, Doug Debs, Severn Edmonds, John Fenlon, Phil Figel, Al Fowler, Linda Garcia, Shelley Gleason, Joan Hall, John Hogan, Dave Houston and Daylight Sales, Jay Jacobs, Linda Laforet, Henry Luna, Peter Martin and Signature Press, Bruce Moore, Errol Ohman, Lina Owsley, Dave and Anne Roth, Randy Ruiz, Bernard Schallhorne, Frank Scheer (, Steve Smith, Bill and Vi Sullivan, Dave Varley, Howard White, Francis Wong, and the United States Postal Service.

Railway Mail Clerks

The Railway Mail clerks were postal employees and worked all directions out of the Bay Area. The Overland route crews worked to Lovelock, Nevada on a rotation that would take them out on train #22 and back on train #101. Other crews worked out on #102 and back on #21. Coast crews worked San Francisco-Los Angeles, which could be a 10-hour trip on #75-76 the Lark, or a grueling 16 hours on the Coast Mail #90-91. Shasta route crews worked to Dunsmir. There were local RPO runs between San Francisco and San Jose, and also between Oakland and Sacramento. An RPO ran between San Rafael and Eureka on the Northwestern Pacific, and on the Santa Fe Fast Mail (trains #7-8) between Oakland and Barstow where they joined the Los Angeles-Chicago sections of #7-8.

The RPO boss was the Clerk in Charge who would work the Registered Mail ("the Regs") and was responsible for the contents of the car and the work accomplished. All other clerks would report the amount of mail worked to the C in C by handing over the labels from sacks sorted. The C in C would make out the reports to hand in at he end of the run. Mail is loaded into the car through the side doors; pouches (1st class) are worked at the pigeonhole cases used for sorting letters. Pouches and sacks are dumped onto tray tables next to the steel racks where more pouches and sacks are hung to sort mail to the many different destinations.

Working in tight quarters and with time pressures the RPO clerks were a special breed and all worked together to get all the mail worked. Teamwork was essential to the success of the operation. They were postal employees working on the railroad between 9 and 16 hours per shift. They had to be familiar with thousands of towns and instantly know the best mail routings. Clerks were required to study schemes and schedules between trips. They were routinely tested and were required to maintain 97% accuracy. On the job, accuracy and honesty were above 99%.

Retired RPO clerks alongside UP 5901 at Sunol.
Jim Briggs dresses the rack
Clerk Jim Briggs demonstates how to dress the rack.
Retired RPO clerks Bill Jackson, Phil Chan, Bill Sullivan, Bernard Schallhorne, Howard White and Jim Briggs.
Howard White checking an empty pouch for mail that might have been left.
Retired RPO clerks Bill Jackson, Phil Chan, Bill Sullivan, Bernard Schallhorne, Howard White and Jim Briggs.
Retired RPO clerks Bill Jackson, Phil Chan, Bill Sullivan, Bernard Schallhorne, Howard White and Jim Briggs.
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