Of postmen, trains and masked men up to no good - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

July 20, 2014

Of postmen, trains and masked men up to no good

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MOST OF WHAT you see of Wild West train robberies is rubbish, Al said. But all the same, they happened and they were pretty exciting.

"In fact, there were just two institutions which people really valued back then - the military and the Post Office - and they took mail robberies to heart. In the end, they stopped because the Post Office offered enormous rewards for information that brought an arrest. Not a conviction, notice, just an arrest. And once you were arrested, there wasn't much chance you'd be found not guilty in those days, so along with people who really had robbed trains, there were lots of cases where people had a grudge against someone quite innocent and they'd say 'I heard Jenkins saying in the bar that he'd robbed a mail train' and that was enough to have him arrested and probably found guilty."

One of the joys of travel for me is to come across an expert who can talk well about a field which I'd never considered. It was that way back in Eureka, in Kansas, when Brad held me fascinated with his passion for woodworking planes. And here it was happening again, in a mail-sorting carriage that once ran on American railways.

Al was one of the guides at the rail museum in Sacramento. He was sitting at the end of the mail wagon, keeping an eye on things and longing to have someone to listen to his tale. I told him that, as a boy, I had a mail coach on my electric model railway, that it swept up a little lead mailbag from a trackside hook and threw out a similar bag that had already been sorted.

"Still happens in Britain," Al said. "They still got them there. But, here, they stopped running some time back."

Al: an expert who could speak with passion and interest
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American mail cars were always just behind the locomotive, he told me. It was for security, he added, and I wrongly suggested it would make it less easy for bandits to detach the carriage and rob it at their leisure. That was what prompted his comment that almost everything in Westerns was historical nonsense.

"The robbers didn't detach the mail car. They just sat in the car behind it and, when the moment came, they blasted the locks with their guns and came in. The mailmen weren't armed and, anyway, the advice was never to be a hero and to offer no resistance. But then the train companies and the Post Office began to advertise that the staff were armed and that more or less put an end to it. That and the rewards.

Sorting rail-mail: always dangerous, whether from hold-up men or the sharp and slippery surroundings
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"You could break into a mail car but you had no clue what any of the envelopes and packets held. You had to take the lot and then get it off the train to go through them. In fact the robbers used to go back and take their seats again after a robbery, because there was no way of alerting the police to what had happened.

"They soon realised that it was much more profitable to rob the passengers themselves. They could walk down the train and take their watches and their wallets. Nobody wanted to be a hero."

Even with the robbers out the way, sorting the mail was no fun. The sorting car was behind the locomotive, which meant it was not only a difficult place to stand because of the acceleration and braking but because the carriage swayed with the weight of the loco.

"And look around you," Al said. "There were no safety rules back then. Just look at all the sharp surfaces at just the right height to bang your head or your body. And look at that wooden floor there. It looks as though it's been polished, and it has been. But it's been polished by men's boots. Men back then had just one pair of work boots and they may have walked across fields or along wet roads to get to work. So that was transferred to the floor. And they wore their boots until the soles wore out, so they were smooth and slippery. And the mail bags were canvas and they absorbed water and nobody was going to lift them when they could drag them. And that made the floor even more dangerous.

"No, working in a mail car even in recent times was no pleasant job, not even a safe one."

It took big power to haul mountain trains by steam
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