“Nobody writes letters anymore,” or so the saying goes. But for over one hundred years our city was home to thousands of letter writers and the nation’s fifth largest post office branch (after New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, Michigan).
Around the turn of the 20th century, postal usage increased so rapidly that available methods of transportation couldn’t keep up. The postal trains were so crammed with parcels and letters it took extra time to unload them and caused delays down the railroad tracks for miles. Delivery for the particularly busy Christmas season of 1906 crippled the system, and residents reported receiving Christmas cards well into March. Efforts to move letters into the city by steam ship were abandoned after the sinking of the SS Baltimore, which went down taking the life of one crew member and three months worth of federal post. The loss of three months worth of pay checks caused a general strike at the main city post office branch and caused further delays.
Eventually, city leaders approved a bold and futuristic plan—they would move postage through newly-invented pneumatic tubes. After two years of construction, a basic system was complete. A twenty-pound capsule of mail could travel from the Main Postal Station downtown to Mabel Tripp station and back in 36 minutes—a substantial improvement over train or horseless carriage. At its peak the system connected 27 of the city’s 48 postal branches, City Hall and the military base outside of town, delivering over a metric ton of mail each day.
However, by the 1960’s, mail usage had decreased and the system became increasingly expensive to run. It was unofficially closed in 1963, when mail delivery was fully transitioned back to truck. However, the pneumatic system continued to operate discreetly between a few post office locations. A common hazing ritual for new postal workers of this generation involved dumping their lunch into the tube, and forcing them to wait 36 minutes for it to return (this was called the “24 minute lunch” because this was the remaining time for rookies to eat).
The tubes were shut for good in 1977, when it was discovered they were being used to traffic large amounts of heroin, cocaine and cannabis throughout the city. Over 60 postal workers were fired and the Post Master General resigned in disgrace. Many of the tubes were filled with cement and sealed. The only remnant from the system can be seen on the west side of the Central Post Office building, where a grate from the tube system still bears the date of dedication—April 2nd, 1908.
– Matt Vermeulen