I was able to secure part time employment with the railroad mail service on the Burlington during the mid-1950s. This occurred both in summer and during the heavy Christmas mail seasons. This was with the help of my father, who was a traveling auditor for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which eventually brought us to live in Omaha, Neb.
At the time I was trying to save money for college, and it was one of my secret dreams to one day have a career as a railway postal clerk riding the rails. So, I entered the world of mail handling, working as a sub or extra hand on one of the three shifts, usually nights 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at the Burlington mail facility.
Omaha was on the Burlington’s east-west main line out of Chicago, and it became the place the post office chose to have a regional mail sorting and distribution center for destinations branching out in all four directions. It was located next to the Burlington passenger station and contained three or four floors of work area. Underneath the building at track level was a partially enclosed area for railroad personnel to sort the mail sacks that would come down through a metal chute from the postal sorting areas. At the dock, the sacks would then be sorted by train number and loaded onto the appropriate mail carts awaiting train arrivals. We also had a cart designated for the star routes (motor truck) which was delivered to a separate building nearby. There the mail would be assigned to various vehicles for delivery to non-rail towns in Nebraska and Iowa. The star route mail would have to be closed out at the dock by around 3 a.m. for early truck departure. As part of our dock sorting area, we had a heated lunchroom that doubled as a place to play cards when things got slow on the night shift. Also, off to the side there was a storage area for empty mail bags that served as a place to catch a few winks on slow nights.
The big thrill for me was to meet the trains when they arrived and to take part in the loading and unloading of mail. We serviced trains between Chicago and Denver, and south to Kansas City and north to Minneapolis. Of course, the California Zephyr went all the way west but carried no mail. From the Denver Zephyr we would occasionally unload heavy pouches of coins from the Denver Mint (hush-hush information).
When I was fortunate enough to work the day shift in railroad mail service, it was exciting to see the arrival of the overnight fast mail from Chicago carrying mail from there and points east. There were usually several fully loaded storage cars that would be switched to the siding underneath the post office where the conveyor belt was located. The crew would then drag the bags from the cars onto the belt for transfer upstairs to the post office.
I remember at the end of the season looking at my knuckles that developed calluses from the way we would have to grab the canvas bags. I never had calluses on the top of my hands before. Occasionally, we would receive a car or two of bags filled with mail-order catalogs, like Sears. Boy, were those heavy! And sometimes there were cars that originated in New York or other eastern cities that contained mail for further sorting and distribution from Omaha. The mail handling by railroad personnel did not include first class mail except to assist in the loading and unloading of trains in the station. First class mail was escorted to and from the post office by postal employees on a special elevator.
This concludes my memories of a very special time in my life. It was great to be a part of the railroad mail service and its portion of U.S. commerce during the 1950s.
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The Burlington Mail Terminal has been redeveloped as the Rail & Commerce Building, home office to several companies as well as providing incubator space for start-ups. The Burlington Station, across 10th Street to the east, after sitting idle for 40 years, was redeveloped in 2015 as 7 Burlington Station, home to KETV of Omaha.