As the 20th century approached, Boston was choking on its own success - its streets were just too crowded. Today, the Green Line is a reminder of the innovation it took to deal with the problem - the nation's first subway and all, opened in 1897.
But putting trolleys, and eventually longer subway cars, underground wasn't the only way Boston tried to overcome its over-clogged streets. Dedicated mail streetcars and pneumatic tubes also played a key, if ultimately just short-term, role.
By the late 1890s, Boston-area trolley systems, in particular the West End Railroad, which was possibly the largest streetcar system in the US, had largely converted their horse cars to electric-powered vehicles - in fact, they were so successful at moving people that they themselves had become a major part of congestion in downtown Boston, where "cars" from everywhere converged.
The Post Office, headquartered in Post Office Square, though, still relied on horse-drawn wagons to move mail around, as seen in this 1895 photo outside the main post office (from the National Postal Museum):
In 1895, though, the Post Office and the West End Railway teamed up: The streetcar company took seven old horse-drawn streetcars from its South Boston line, added electric motors and converted them into mobile mail movers. The Post Office supplied workers - who used cubbies also installed by the streetcar company to sort mail while moving along their routes (from The Electrical Engineer, 1895):
The cars were painted white, in part to help people realize they wouldn't pick up passengers (from the Street Railway Journal, February, 1896):
The system started up on May 1, 1895, with five routes, each with six to eight trains in each direction a day between Post Office Square and outlying post offices and major train stations, starting around 5 a.m. One route served Back Bay, Brookline and Brighton; another, the South End and Roxbury, with most cars going up and down Washington Street - with one car a day diverting through Copley Square. A third route had cars going between Post Office Square and Cambridgeport, Central Square and North Cambridge - with one car a day going through Copley Square; while the fourth route clanged its way to East Cambridge and Somerville. Another route served South Boston and Dorchester.
In an article on trolley mail service, the National Postal Museum writes:
One of Boston's busiest trolley cars was even equipped with an electric canceling machine. The clerks were able to cancel 2,000 covers per hour.
Each trolley mail car was typically staffed by two to four mail clerks. They were responsible for taking mail out of the bags loaded on at either a post office or a train station and sorting it along the route, re-packaging it for carriers. The clerks referred to a plan of the city, showing how districts were divided by carriers. Clerks would bundle letters by district for each carrier. Bags containing the letters for carriers who worked out of a substation were taken off the mail cars at the substation. It was then taken by a clerk to its destination. Mail destined for points out of the city was placed in bags which were deposited at the central post office or railway station.
In addition to the mail clerks, two employees of the trolley company were usually assigned to the cars. The company employees were the motorman, who was responsible for running the cars which traveled alone, and a conductor, (who would keep the car on schedule and handle the trolley rope and switching) or a trolley boy (who would be responsible for replacing the pole whenever it jumped a wire).
Ironically, the Post Office rejected a proposal to use an existing tunnel under the main post office for loading and unloading of mail cars; deeming it more important to continue using it for traditional mail wagons. And a Boston Transit Commission plan to build an entirely underground trolley route from Boylston Street to Post Office Square never got beyond excavating a short distance of tunnel just past Boylston station.
The West End Railway quickly added a nighttime route, the Boston Circuit, to collect mail from suburban post offices - and letters handled by it got special postmarks (from the National Postal Museum):
But not long after the turn of the century, trolley mail faded out, as the Post Office switched from horse-drawn wagons to motorized trucks - although in Boston, they lasted at least long enough to have the Boston Elevated Railway, which took over the West End trolley system in 1897, buy new cars for the mail service. And as late as 1909, BERy was reporting $37,977 in annual income from carrying mail (from American Street Railway Investments, 1910).
But only 2 1/2 years after starting in-city mail-rail service, the Post Office began a new service that, as the Globe trumpeted, promised "CANNON BALL SPEED" for letters and packages: A 4,500-foot-long series of tubes between Post Office Square and what was then called North Union Station that could blast mail-carrying brass cylinders at 60 m.p.h. between the two locations.
Using a single 60-hp engine to create a pressure of 6 psi, the system was inaugrated on Friday, Dec. 17, when Gov. Roger Wolcott loaded up the first mail-bearing "cartridge" and released a lever that launched it to North Station.
And there it was unloaded, packed with a bouquet of red and white roses and sent back to the Post Office, where Boston Pneumatic Transit Co. President W.E.L. Dillaway presented the flowers to the governor, to a rousing applause, the Globe reported - adding the entire round trip took 3 minutes and 15 seconds.
Each of the cylinders, 21 inches long and 8 inches wide - four times wider than the cylinders used in older European systems - could carry 600 letters.
Pneumatic-tube sending and receiving apparatus at the main post office (from Transactions of American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1899:
Boston Pneumatic Transit, which made money by charging the Post Office, eventually built nearly 14 miles of tubes under Boston. In 1898, the legislature gave the company permission to build its tubes across Fort Point Channel, alongside what is known the James Kelley Bridge, and to Harvard Square, alongside the Harvard and Warren bridges.
In 1900, the Globe published a look at life in Boston in the year 2000, which included predictions of pneumatic tubes to every home, speeding delivery of the mail - and, of course, the day's issue of the Globe.
But the system only lasted until 1918. Although reliable, it was way more expensive than trucks - and as trucks grew larger, they could carry more mail than even a tube system pumping mail through tubes at 60 m.p.h. In 1918, Congress pulled the plug. In 1926, some entrepreneurs tried starting a new pneumatic-tube system in Boston, but it never went very far.
Post Office Square in 1890 - post office on the left (From the BPL; also see a better view of the building):