The pivotal turning points of postal history generally follow soon after the appearance of new modes of transportation. For example, the introduction in Canada of the first steam-powered railway in 1836 was followed in 1840 by the first dispatch of sealed mailbags by train. However, it was not until the 1850s that the railway mail service got into full swing. In this decade, which opened with England’s decision to transfer responsibility for postal service to the government of the Province of Canada, the country’s postal operations experienced incredible growth (an increase of 441 per cent in the number of letters and 295 per cent in the number of post offices). The railway was to no small extent responsible for this growth, since it simultaneously revolutionized the traditional (slow) modes of postal communication (animal-drawn vehicles, canoes and boats), broke the isolation of remote communities, linked up cities and regions, and reoriented prospects for growth. In 1876, for instance, rail transport allowed the Globe newspaper to compete on a daily basis with local Hamilton newspapers. The concrete reflection of this major change in direction began in 1854 when the postal authorities and railway companies provided for the installation of mail cars aboard trains, that is, real travelling post offices, to serve the population. Starting in 1854, the mail was carried and sorted in these little travelling post offices by numerous crews of clerks who criss-crossed the country. Development of the post then began to mimic the "infernal" pace of development of the railway, a pace dictated at the time of Confederation by the dynamic forces of a country in the process of building itself. The completion in 1876 of the Intercolonial, which linked Halifax to Québec, made it possible to cut 12 hours off the time required to send a postal item from Saint John or Halifax to Ontario. It should be remembered that the postal services of the Province of Canada, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia were consolidated in 1868. This rail connection in the East between the Maritimes and Central Canada—and hence the sharing of a stronger sense of national identity—had its counterpart in the West with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. With the extension of track as far west as Calgary in 1883, Manitoba, which had entered Confederation in 1870, no longer had to depend on trains travelling through America to communicate with the rest of Canada. Once the Canadian Pacific was completed in the mid-1880s, Canadians from the Atlantic to the Pacific had the benefit of daily mail-car service over a distance of 5984 km. The railway mail clerks received, sorted, distributed, and transferred mail from one car to another on the various sections of track. Moreover, the contribution of the expansion of the railway network to the vitality of the postal service did not end there. The Canadian Pacific generated so much traffic that the government declared in 1903 that the country needed two more transcontinental lines. The further the railway system spread its web, the greater the reach, effectiveness and speed of the post. It was in this context of booming growth that the Post Office department created the Railway Mail Service Branch in 1897. At the same time, the number of railway mail clerks rose from 137 in 1873 to 397 in 1900, and the railway via the Whitepass and Yukon that operated between Skagway and Whitehorse brought the mail to the Yukon in 1901.

The railway mail service continued this development until 1950, the year it reached its peak performance. From that point it began to decline, for various reasons. As a result of the demographic and economic vitality of the post-war period, the volume of mail suddenly increased phenomenally. It became increasingly difficult for the mail cars to keep up. In addition, the role of motorized vehicles in postal communications expanded; a nation-wide strike of railway workers in 1950 encouraged this development. Finally, airmail came to occupy a huge place in the postal arena. By 1961, the number of railway post offices had dropped by two thirds, and the number of clerks had been cut in half.

On 24 April 1971, the railway mail service was officially abolished in Canada. Bulk mail continued to be transported by rail until 1987, but the mail cars themselves ceased to exist. It was the end of an era.

Gérald Pelletier


Brown, Craig. The Illustrated History of Canada. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987.

O’Reilly, Susan McLeod. On Track: The Railway Mail Service in Canada. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992.