'Moving Mountains' - Of Mail, Published 23 December 1959Like faith, the post office also moves mountains. Only they are mountains of mail.
Every night these times and specially just before Christmas, the Canadian National moves mountains of mail east and west on their train No. 18. So heavy was the mail eastbound one night last week that even though the train has the slowest schedule of all trains between Toronto and Montreal, this one managed to lose an additional three hours. It took No. 18 more than 12 hours to travel 335.4 miles between the Queen City and the Metropolis.
This special post office on wheels or railway post office, though it is actually three cars, operates in the middle of the train.
First comes a bright, well-lighted modern 72-foot-long car, NCR No. 9721. In it are the sorting racks, and this is the very heart of the RPO. Here in charge is Paul Gobeil, a mail clerk with more than 40 years' service. He and his crew of half a dozen or more melt the mountains of mail that come aboard at Toronto or the 24 intermediate stops before reaching Montreal. They also create their own mail mountains, as they sort bags for the east beyond Montreal.
They also get together a bag to be dropped off at Prescott for Ogdensburg and U.S. points beyond, for Ottawa, and of course for intermediate points en route. They even fill a bag with westbound mail, put on an eastbound train erroneously in the Christmas rush.
These eastbound bags are thrown off at Napanee and put on westbound No. 19, the opposite number to Montreal-bound CNR 18, and of course headed west, while CNR 18 keeps on heading east to Montreal.
As an added feature to this swap of mail bags, goes also the youthful cigar-smoking Sheldon Lepofsky, of Toronto, who having sweated his way to Napanee on eastbound No. 18, now jumps the train and heads back to breakfast in Toronto on CNR No. 19.
In the second of this trio of RPO's is an old "cull", a gas lit car, CN 8515, and reminiscent of the long defunct Canadian Northern. At that, one of the gas jets sputtered dimly all the way to Montreal.
The third of the mail trio was NYC 8499. The crew decided she was an old horse car.
In both these dingy and ancient cars mail bags were piled to the roofs. Occasionally, there would be variety, where a shovel or a sled had been mailed, because the new express rate was higher than sending the same things by post.
The gas lit car you could squirm through, but the far or west end of the NYC horse car was so filled that it took half an hour at Belleville to clean out that end of it.
Working steadily at "head office" in the RPO sorting car was a toiling crew. Headed by chief Paul Gobeil, the men worked feverishly, perspiring, endlessly. The men come on the train at 7 p.m., though the train is not scheduled to leave for almost three hours. They seem even not to have enough time to pose for pictures; they almost resent taking time out at 11.30 p.m. to gulp their own soup or down their steaming tea.
Indeed, only when the sun has "put out" the lights east of Cornwall, did the mail sorters slow down.
The men sort with incredible speed, smoking furiously at sweet, thin cigars as they do so. This is not opulence; it's because regulations forbid cigaret smoking. A few pipes come out too, and smudge the air, and perhaps fumigate the mail.
What are called "separations", and what we would term pigeon holes, take up part of the car. and the mail slides into these 300 odd separations with deft speed. The men arrange their own separations.
On one side of the car, the cigar smokers sort for Quebec, and you also see such labels as "Labrador Mixed", or "Scotland Par Avion", or maybe St. Zotique.
So chief Paul Gobeil, of Ahuntsic, works with his son, Roland, of Laval West; George Smith, Rosemount Avenue, and Phil Roy of Montreal.
Working all alone was Bernard De Prois, register clerk of Montreal. It is amusing to see him rest his feet on bags full of paper money; not everybody has a $10,000 footstool!
James Murdoch, supervisor of transportation, Toronto District Post Office, was assigned by Deputy Postmaster General George Boyle to make the all-night, no-go-to-bed safari. Like an old hand, Mr. Murdoch would find himself impulsively sorting mail.
Train No. 18 started off only three minutes late, but by the time it was at Belleville they had lost an hour; Brockville was seen about two hours late, and it was close to three hours behind at Montreal.
Make 24 Stops
At Oshawa, the first of two dozen stops, it took about a quarter of an hour to move the first mountain peaks, and start a new row of mail bag Alps. They had to put down a red flare at Bowmanville to block the west bound track by the mail truck, which was taking mail from the eastbound train on the eastbound track.
A 1929 Chev serenaded the train at Cobourg, and the light-hearted truck crew at Oshawa cracked at the gas lit mail car: "Where did you get the antique?"
Endless stops at Kingston and Brockville to move mountains anew.
Now three hours late, and the mail car flooded with the morning sun, the RPO's decided to call it a night. A last swig of tea, and they bagged the last unsorted mail, and left it for the day staff at Montreal post office.
But there is seemingly neither justice nor sentiment for railway postal clerks. Though this crew's homes are in Montreal, they will be spending Christmas alone - in Toronto.