The “Mail Catcher”


The “Cow Catcher”


Note:  Vaiden, Mississippi had, until the 1960s, a “mail catcher” (as described below) alongside the railroad tracks.  Although the information here was garnered from various locations on the internet, the memories of seeing mail scattered along the tracks after a failed attempt to “snatch” the mail bag from the holding arm (also called the “mail crane”), are vivid in the minds of many of Vaiden’s older citizens.  The picture(s) and information on this page are NOT of Vaiden, but are used as a general reference.  If you have any pictures or first-hand stories or information concerning Vaiden’s Mail Catcher, PLEASE LET ME KNOW.



Mail Catcher -- an iron rod, or other contrivance, attached to a railroad car for catching a mail bag while the train is in motion.


United States mails are carried in some of the fastest passenger and express trains in the country. Many of these trains run long distances between important American cities, such as New York and St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles, and Chicago and New Orleans. In order to maintain fast schedules, these trains stop at only the larger cities en route.


However, with the aid of mail cranes such as we see in the picture, it is possible for even the smallest communities situated along the railroad to have adequate mail service at all times. The mail crane enables the train to pick up a bag of mail without stopping or slowing down. The crane is located alongside the track, near the railway station. A mail messenger employed by the railroad or by the local post office or some other authorized person, attaches the mail bag to the crane a short time before the train is due.


On each side of the mail car of the approaching train is a steel catcher arm. As the train nears the station, a clerk in the mail car adjusts one of these catcher arms so that when it passes the crane it catches the waiting mail bag where it is tied in the center. The mail clerk then swings the catcher arm into the car and drops the bag on the floor. He also throws off bags of mail at designated stations where they are picked up by messengers and carried to the local post offices.


Another Description

Instead of stopping at every small town to transfer the mail, railway mail trains were fitted with catcher arms that snatched mailbags off of cranes such as this. As early as 1865, before the arrival of mail cranes, mail was exchanged on nonstop trains, but to do so, engineers had to slow trains down to a crawl so clerks could exchange the mail by hand. This system, both inefficient and dangerous, was soon scrapped. The first track side Railway Mail Service cranes were wooden, F-shaped, mechanisms. They were soon replaced by the simple steel hook and crane.

As tremendously successful as it was, “mail-on-the-fly” still had its share of glitches. Clerks had to pay special attention to raising the train’s catcher arm. If they hoisted it too soon, they risked hitting switch targets, telegraph poles or semaphores which would rip the catcher arm right off the train. Too late, and they would miss an exchange and each missed exchange netted a clerk 5 demerits. Missed exchanges were a special threat on a handful of eastern runs that had less than a minute between some exchanges. On single line tracks, mail cranes could appear on either side, and woe be to the new clerk who, alertly looking out the right-hand side of the train, missed a series of mail cranes on the left-hand side. Experienced clerks on board night mail trains relied on the sound or “feel” of the tracks, knowing by the train’s speed or the curves of the track how far away they were from a mail crane.

Exchanging the mail was a two-part process, after the clerk snagged the mail bag with the catcher arm, he had to toss out the mailbag for that station. If a clerk did not kick the mailbag out far enough, it could get trapped beneath the wheels of the train, bursting open and sending letters flying everywhere. The clerks called such small disasters “snowstorms.” On the other hand, too much “oomph” could also cause difficulties. One poor clerk tossed the mailbag out with such force that it sailed through the bay window of the station house.




The Mail Catcher


Catcher Arm





Grabbing the Mail




Watch the Mail Crane in Action

(7.52Mb .WAV File)




The “Cowcatcher”


In the early days of railroading, the engine that pulled the rest of the train was equipped with a "cow catcher" in the event that the train hit a cow or herd of cows.  If a cow was killed by a train, it was most likely because it got hit by the cow catcher, not the caboose.  Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a cowcatcher as “an inclined frame on the front of a railroad locomotive for throwing obstacles off the track.”








The Cowcatcher was invented by Charles Babbage (17911871), an English mathematician, who made notable contributions in other areas as well. He assisted in establishing the modern postal system in England and compiled the first reliable actuarial tables. He also invented a type of speedometer and is credited as the inventor of the first automatic digital computer.