It was in January of 1683 that the first official postal service began in the U.S. What may be noteworthy to stamp collectors is that the mail traveled without stamps, the postal history left to us from that era is in the form of stampless covers.
Those who have traveled between New York and Boston may have found themselves on a descendent of the original post rider route: what was once the Boston Post Road has become Route 1.
Postal routes and transport can be an integral part of stamp collecting for those interested in the history of stamps and postal systems. Historic pieces of mail that were carried on pioneer mail routes command great prohibitive prices, though a collection of stamps and covers commemorating the likes of the Butterfield Overland Mail, the short-lived Pony Express and the Fast Mail of the rails are all available to the interested collector.
As the trails of colonial times gave way to roads and rails the horse and rider disappeared. A record delivery for the Pony Express in the 1860's was Lincoln's inaugural address, delivered to California in 7 days and 17 hours. The "Fast Mail" provided by the country's Railway Mail Service, in the middle of the 19th century would make the trip in a fraction of the time.
Mail on the Rails
Clerks in mail cars added to train lines did the sorting in transit and made deliveries in junction stops on already established train routes. The method the clerks used is described in The Railway Mail Service in The Bay State Monthly (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Jan 1884) by Thomas P. Cheney:
"In order that a minute may not be lost, when passing through tunnels or standing in dark railway-stations, the lamps are kept burning from the start to the finish. The last wagon, gorgeously suggestive of a circus, has arrived with its load of mail, and the busy work receives at once a new impetus. Several loads, however, have already arrived, and have been disposed of as much as possible; for the work begins, in some cases, several hours before the starting of the train. Transfer clerks and porters deliver the pouches and sacks into the car, the label of each being scanned and checked by the clerks, to detect if all connections due are received, and that no mail may be delayed by being carried out on the road with the other mail and returned. The last pouch is scarcely received, when a sudden, but not violent, shock announces that the locomotive is attached to the train, and the start about to be made."
Through organizational changes and governmental machinations, by the beginning of the twentieth century the Fast Mail had completely given way to the Railway Mail Service.
Modern Mail Transport
A similar mail transport experiment occurred in the mid-twentieth century with the Highway Post Office or HPO's. Basically buses with mail carrying and sorting facilities. Instituted on Feb 10 1941, it acted as a fill-in for the RPO's that had been reduced in number due to a variety of factors, including financial problems. With a slow-down during WWII it came back strongly in the late forties and fifties, taking advantage of the Intercontinental Highway System that was one of President Eisenhower's major projects. There are many varieties of commemorative covers that were carried on the system's routes and an interesting collection of these unusual items can be formed.
Adding to the romance of train or highway mail transport is the fact that it is a vanished service. Mail traveling any distance now travels by air. All of these transport modes are eminently collectible. Those who put together a stamp and cover collection of examples of mail transport find their pleasure not in what has been moved by various postal services to their final destinations, but how.