Friday, January 17, 2020

Lost in the Mail

by Erin Doane, Curator

On March 3, 1951, a heavy snowstorm was raging as Erie Railroad Train #7 from New York City sped through Wellsburg at 8:15 in the morning. In those days, mail was delivered by non-stop dispatch to the village. That meant that the train did not stop or even slow down to drop off the mail. The railway postal clerk on the train simply threw the locked canvas mail pouch from the train as it passed by. Train #7 always delivered the heaviest mail of the day, usually around 300 individual pieces of all kinds except for parcel post. On the morning of March 3, because of poor visibility caused by the snowstorm, the clerk threw the pouch a little too soon and it went right into the Chemung River.

The problem of mail thrown from trains being damaged or lost was not new. Less than two years earlier, the Erie Railroad had discontinued direct mail service to the area precisely because of the loss and damage. Earlier in the century, locomotives had run on steam, but by 1949 all of Erie’s engines were diesel. The mechanical change meant that trains ran 15 to 20mph faster than they had before. This was great for the railroad companies but not so good for the communities who had mail delivered by the direct, non-stop method. Pouches that were not thrown clear enough of the tracks sometimes got sucked under the train and the mail was cut up or scattered for miles down the tracks.

On October 1, 1949, direct mail service from the Erie Railroad ended in Wellsburg in favor of a star route. The government contracted out star routes to private companies and individuals who delivered the mail through means other than by steamboat and railroad. Elmer Peck of Lowman got the contract for the new local star route. Peck’s son-in-law Ralph Jilson picked up mail and parcels from a central office at the Waverly railway station and drove them to the post offices in Wellsburg, Lowman, Chemung, and Wilawana early each morning and late each afternoon. 

The new system of mail delivery kept letters safe from being accidentally destroyed by speeding trains, but postal customers almost immediately protested the change. Delivery slowed down considerably, and there was soon a large number of vigorous complaints demanding that the old non-stop service was restored. Customers got their way, and by February 1, 1950 mail pouches were again being launched from trains.

Sarah Wilcox was postmaster in Wellsburg in 1951. When she got word that snowy March morning that the mail pouch had been flung into the river, she sent a team into action. Her husband Lester Wilcox, office clerk Leroy Miller, mail messenger Norman Dallas, and school teacher James Underwood launched a boat and searched the river. They came up empty handed. The river was unusually high at the time with a swift current. The next day, Sunday, volunteers spread out along the river banks, looking for the lost mail. On Monday, auxiliary mail carrier Eldon Hughes and Edward Burt took a boat as far as Nine Mile Point looking for the mail pouch. Ten days later, the postmaster was still appealing to fishermen and people living along the river to help in the search, but it was becoming clear that the mail would never be found.

In 1970, Sarah Wilcox announced her retirement from the Wellsburg post office. She had served as postmaster for 25 years and worked as a postal clerk 6 years before that. A Star-Gazette reporter interviewed her on this momentous occasion, and the story of the mail that went missing in the river came up. At the time of the accident, it must have been distressing for those who never got letters, bills, or cards they were expecting, but, nearly 20 years later, it made for an amusing little story.


  1. Wow dedicated mail persons. I say going up and down the river to look for the mail pouch was above and beyond they duty. Hmmm I wonder if that's what happens to our lost letters now.

  2. I was born in Elmira,and grew up there,and I moved to Pittsfield,Mass in 1968.I worked as a Postal Clerk for 34 years.I don't believe there were any postal workers more dedicated than those at the Wellsburg Post Office,back then when they lost that mail.I am sure they did their best,and went above and beyond,sacrificing their rime and well being and safety.