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Local Legacies: First mail car built in Hannibal

By Mary Lou Montgomery

Hannibal has the distinction of being the site where the first U.S. railroad mail car was built.

It was built in the shops of St. Joseph and Hannibal Railroad and was the first mail car to operate between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

It was such a big success, that other cars were being built and placed in service, and in 1938, the mail rail service united the nation into one great mail system.

An article describing the beginning of mail service and the building of the car appeared in the Hannibal Evening Courier-Post on June 30, 1938. This article credited to Gen. William A. Davis of St. Joseph with the founding of the service, and took great pride in efficiency of his office in the dispatch of mail matter. He frequently met the trains carrying the mail.

Davis devised the system of sorting the mail en route, thus saving the time of sorting it at points along the rail system. Prior to using the mail cars, mail carried in pouches, and was sorted in various post office at the end of the train divisions.

He gave a great deal of study to the matter, and made numerous drawings of possible mail sorting systems. He finally succeeded in interesting other officials and they agreed to give the Davis mail car plan a trial.

On Aug. 5, 1862, he reported to the assistant postmaster general and detailed his plans for the first mail car. He oversaw the first operation, which was termed a success after minor details were worked out.

The article described Davis’ first mail trip in part: “I have honor to report that in obedience to verbal orders received through Mr. Waller, special agent of the department, one of the clerks and myself left here on Saturday 26, so as to be in Quincy on Monday the 28th to commence the distribution of overland mail on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railway. Finding that the mail cars had not been arranged according to promises made to Mr. Waller, instead of going to Quincy I proceeded to Hannibal and succeeded in getting the cars temporarily fixed, in which, with some inconvenience, I think the work can be done until the new cars are ready.”

Trial runs were then accomplished, and when the first experimental trips were completed, Davis filed this report: “This will be all the necessary to secure the entire success of the disruption on the road, providing we have competent men to do the work.”

In the same edition of the newspaper, I.N. Wilbur, former master mechanic of the Hannibal division of the C B & Q Railroad, old an amusing incident involving rail transportation at the time.

“In the early ‘60s we were on a westbound train and had an order to meet an eastbound train at Bevier at midnight. Bevier was a great coal mining town. On arriving we fond the other train had not yet reached there. It was a beautiful summer night and my fireman and I got out on top of the cab and laid down to take a nap in the moonlight.

“It appeared that the conductor and brakeman were also taking a snooze on the top of the caboose. At daybreak the conductor woke up and aroused us. When we got all stretched out and thoroughly awake, we decided to proceed, but one thing bothered us – had the train gone through? If it had, not one of us had heard it. Bevier was not a telegraph office then. Some future great railroad man suggest that we walk over to the coal chute and make a search through the coal tickets and if we found on file there a coal ticket with the number of the engine we had orders to meet we would know that the train had passed us in the night

“Sure enough we found the ticket there. We reached the division at Brookfield four hours late. No questions were asked us and we had no statement to give out. I do not suppose the superintendent or the dispatcher even discovered our dereliction, for every fellow worked out his individual salvation in those days as best he could.”

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