Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow . . .

Baltimore Glimpses

October 04, 1994|By Gil Sandler

RECENT OFFICIAL reports confirm what we already knew: The delivery of the U.S. mail in the Baltimore area is a service in need of fixing. With that in mind, the story of Richard Thompson seems particularly quaint. Back in the 1920s, Mr. Thompson depended on same-day delivery of mail in Baltimore and got it without paying a premium price.

Mr. Thompson's secret: He knew the speed of Baltimore's Railway Mail Service -- the mobile postal service which began exactly 100 years ago today on Oct. 4, 1894.

Exactly whose idea it was to start delivering mail by streetcar is lost to history. But many who remember the old streetcar service say it couldn't be beat.

The rapidly moving street-cars operated from 5 a.m. to midnight. Workers on board -- including a motorman, mail clerk and conductor -- delivered mail to stations outside the inner-city area and collected mail from street-corner mailboxes.

The Railway Mail Service, which was replaced by trucks in November 1929, had six lines at its peak, servicing such communities as Roland Park, Ellicott City, Waverly, Catonsville, Rogers Forge, Govans and Towson.

"Those streetcar post offices really delivered," Norman Yingling recalled. He should know; he was a postal clerk aboard the Towson-Catonsville line. "We had a canceling machine aboard. We'd pick up mail at the mailboxes along the routes. We'd start out early in the morning, picking up the mail and delivering it to the various neighborhood post offices. With two or three deliveries a day, same-day delivery was assured."

Same-day delivery was what Richard Thompson depended on. That's because young Richard, who lived in Roland Park, was then dating a young lady, Naomi Pritchett, who lived in Govans. It was his habit to mail Naomi a post card in the morning when he went to work. He knew the Railway Mail Service would be by promptly, and within hours Naomi would have his postcard.

"I would write her in the morning what plans I had for the evening," Mr. Thompson says. "Whether we were going to a movie, or out with friends, and what time I would pick her up. When I called on her in the evening, without exception, she had gotten my postcard, and she knew my plans for that same evening."

Richard had other plans, too; to marry Miss Pritchett, which he did.

Lots of things about life in Baltimore today are better by far than they were years ago -- the loveliness of the Inner Harbor, the ease of our commuting (compared to other cities); the excitement of the Orioles (when they're playing!). But not our mail service.

However, those old streetcar post offices didn't handle the volume of mail that today's United States Postal Service is forced to deal with. Why today's junk mail alone would probably send those street cars looking for reinforcements.

As they say, it was a simpler time.

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