Great Northern Railway Post Office Car No. 42

American railroads have fulfilled many purposes in their operation during the last 150 years. A primary function of the railroads in the era prior to the wide use of the airplane was the transportation of the United States mail. Railroad transportation offered the United States Post Office Department the fastest and most economical means to move the mail.

Special railway post office cars were constructed to the exact specifications of the Post Office, and contained facilities which allowed for the collection and handling of mailed materials. Employees rode the cars from point to point and fulfilled the same duties performed by all post office workers: the sorting and distribution of America's mail.

Today the United States Postal Service no longer uses the railroad-based post offices. The airplane and improved mail handling equipment have made the railroad post office obsolete. Though some mail is still transported by train, it is no longer sorted en route. The once-everpresent station mail crane no longer holds the mail bag to be snatched up by the speeding trains and post office workers no longer sort letters in swaying cars filled with canvas bags and wooden pigeon holes.

Great Northern Railway Post Office car No. 42 is one of six streamlined baggage-mail cars built for the Great Northern Railway by American Car & Foundry Company (Lot 3442) in 1950.


Great Northern RPO No. 42 served some of the railroad's speediest passenger trains, including the Western Star and possibly the Mid-Century Empire Builder, carrying mail between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. Inside the moving car, armed postal clerks swiftly sorted mail as the train rolled along at speeds of up to eighty miles an hour. Most Western RPO service stopped in 1967 and it is likely No. 42 was retired that year. The car remained in the Great Northern's St. Paul, Minnesota yards until 1979 when it was donated by Burlington Northern to the California State Railroad Museum.

Restoration of this car included new exterior paint in its original Great Northern colors: Pullman green, Omaha orange, gold and silver. The interior duplicates the inside of the working Great Northern RPO car. The car is open to visitors and is used to interpret themes of railway mail service. No. 42 is equipped for picking up and dropping mailbags "on the fly" from smaller stations where the train did not stop. It even has side mail slots where people on a station platform could mail letters.