Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Cariboo Region: Railway Mail Service, Prince George to Prince Rupert

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the extension of rail service to the province allowed the freer movement of people and goods within B.C. and to other parts of Canada. This included the transport of mail for individuals, organizations and businesses. Trains have carried mail since their invention, but in 1897, the federal government officially formed the Railway Mail Service within the Post Office Department.

Departmental order from Deputy Postmaster General William White, dated February 22, 1897, announcing the establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch. The announcement includes the initial locations and other details regarding the service.

Department Order, No. 38 [Establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch] (e002151860)

This service used a system of travelling post offices aboard trains, staffed by crews of specialized railway mail clerks. These clerks performed the regular work of receiving, sorting, cancelling and distributing mail, all done while on board trains travelling from town to town. Clerks needed to be speedy, accurate, strong and trustworthy as they prepared often-valuable items for the mail service. Especially tricky was the pickup of mailbags on the fly. The clerk would swing out a catch arm on the side of the rail car to pick up the waiting bag, while simultaneously kicking out a delivery mailbag for that location. The manoeuvre was particularly challenging if the train was running late and going by a station at full speed.

Railway mail cars had various configurations, but all were fitted with dumping tables, sorting cases and other furniture for preparing mail, as well as stoves, toilets and sinks. Although this made for cramped quarters, such equipment was an absolute necessity for crews who often lived on board the cars for long runs.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man beside tables and mailbags in a railway mail car.

Portrait of railway mail clerk A.L. Robinson on the Grand Trunk line’s first Prince George–Prince Rupert run, 1914 (s002386)

In B.C.’s Cariboo region, railways and the accompanying railway mail service arrived somewhat later than in other parts of the province. In 1914, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway completed a line from Prince George to Prince Rupert as part of its larger network. The company located the terminus of the line on the traditional lands of the Ts’msyen at Prince Rupert, and it purchased 553 hectares of Lheidi T’enneh land to form the new town site of Prince George. However, by 1915, the company was in financial trouble, and the federal government nationalized the railway and integrated it into Canadian National Railways in 1920.

Colour map of Canada and the northern portion of the United States, showing various railway lines across the continent.

Map showing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the lines of the Grand Trunk Railway system in Canada; also the relative position of the Grand Trunk Pacific to the three northern transcontinental lines now completed: Canadian Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railway, 1903 (e01751895-v6)

The Railway Mail Service reached its peak in 1950, when it employed 1,385 railway clerks on lines all across the country. However, the service was in decline by the mid-1960s, and while some mail was still carried by rail up to the 1980s, the Railway Mail Service officially ended in 1971.

To learn more about the Railway Mail Service, railways in B.C., and the purchase of the Lheidi T’enneh land for the Prince George town site, check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada

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