Post Haste


Like mail cars, express cars were attached to fast passenger trains; yet unlike mail cars, they made a high profit that entitled them to priority treatment. This was critical in moving a document from New York to San Francisco in a time approaching the four days that had become possible. Although all mail was equal once attached to a speeding train, some mail was more equal in terms of making rapid connections at rail junctions, particularly Chicago. It was not for nothing that this was remembered as an era of monopoly and big business, and the wise shipper acted accordingly.

As efficient as the rails were in 1905, they were just a few years away from the beginning of their long slide into neglect. A new competitor in the transcontinental sweepstakes—one destined to cut coast-to-coast travel times down to a matter of hours—was waiting in the wings.

The meteoric rise of aviation in this country is generally recounted in terms of pioneering pilots and epochal aircraft, yet it was government subsidies and air mail that not only brought American commercial aviation to life but nurtured it through its infancy. In 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, short experimental air-mail runs were conducted on Long Island under the auspices of local postal officials. The next year the Post Office Department urged Congress to appropriate funds to launch an air-mail service. Four years passed before the skeptical legislators were convinced: then, in 1916, they voted fifty thousand dollars for this purpose. World War I intervened, but before its end Congress raised the airmail budget to one hundred thousand dollars, both for the establishment of experimental air routes and for the purchase of planes to fly them.


The guiding hand behind the inauguration of aerial postal delivery was Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger. He had set his sights not only on establishing the airplane as a dependable long-distance carrier but also on attracting private capital to create a new commercial industry. Before this could take place, the Post Office was thrust into the role of pioneer, operating its own planes and blazing trails across the sky. Its progress was remarkable. After a year of mail flights between New York and Washington, Post Office aircraft headed west. On short hops of several hundred miles the planes of the day were hardly faster than train service, but at transcontinental ranges real time savings were possible. The Post Office opened the last leg of the first coast-to-coast air route on September 8, 1920. Although the planes flew only in daylight, air mail still cut thirty-seven hours off equivalent train time, delivering the mail in fifty-seven hours.


Regular transcontinental flight time was nearly halved in February of 1921, when an experimental night-and-day relay made the run from San Francisco to New York in thirty-three hours and twenty minutes. The feat cost one flier his life and sent the De Haviland pilot Jack Knight on an epic journey across the darkened Midwest with only an occasional ground fire and a road map to guide him. “I happened to be the man on the spot,” he told reporters later, “but any of the rest of the fellows would have done what I did.” These were noble sentiments, but probably exaggerated. Somehow Knight made it, but it was apparent that day-night service, the key to really fast times, could not work flying blind. It was just too dangerous, and pilots knew it. “Sometimes a flyer will not fly,” testified the Air Service superintendent in 1921. “They are as temperamental as a lot of chorus girls, and about as easy to handle.”

The Post Office’s solution was to put up a chain of searchlights and acetylene torches, which by 1926 had extended a band of plane-guiding lights across the entire country. Meanwhile, the Post Office was maintaining a regular schedule of twenty-nine hours and fifteen minutes eastbound and thirty-four hours and twenty minutes westbound, at twenty cents per letter ounce over the full route. Yet the U.S. government’s successful career as an air-mail carrier was nearly over, while Otto Praeger’s dream of privatization was soon to be realized.

Postal officials were trying air mail only eight years after the Wrights flew.

It had been understood that the Post Office operation was a temporary expedient and that once the feasibility of long-distance air mail had been proved the emphasis would shift to commercial carriers. This became official with the Air Mail Act of 1925, known as the Kelly Act, which transferred responsibility to private contractors. On September 1, 1927, the last Post Office mail flight landed, completing a record of more than thirteen million miles flown and more than three hundred million letters delivered. Infancy was at an end.