Between the Revolutionary period and the first World War, the United States post office set out to improve transportation of the post office mails. From those early days to the present, the post office has helped develop and subsidize every new mode of transportation in the United States. The post office's role was a natural one; apart from postal employees themselves, transportation was the single most important element in mail delivery, literally, the legs of communication.
Even when the general public was skeptical or fearful of a new means of transportation, the post office experimented with inventions that offered potential for moving the mail faster, occasionally suffering embarrassment, ridicule, or even abuse in the process.
As mail delivery evolved from foot to horseback, stagecoach, steamboat, railroad, automobile, and airplane, with intermediate and overlapping use of balloons, helicopters, and pneumatic tubes, post office mail contracts ensured the income necessary to build the great highways, rail lines, and airways that eventually spanned the continent.
By the turn of the 19th century, the U.S. Post Office had purchased a number of stagecoaches for operation on the nation's better post roads -- a post road being any road on which the mail traveled -- and continued to encourage new designs to improve passenger comfort and carry mail more safely.
Ten years before waterways were declared post roads in 1823, the Post Office used steamboats to carry mail between post towns where no roads existed.
In 1831, when steam-driven engines "traveling at the unconscionable speed of 15 miles an hour" were denounced as a "device of Satan to lead immortal souls to hell," railroads began to carry mail for short distances. By 1836, two years before railroads were constituted post roads, the Postal Office had awarded its first mail contract to the railroads.
As early as 1896, before many people in the United States were aware of a new mode of transportation that would eventually supplant the horse and buggy, the Post Office experimented with the "horseless wagon" in its search for faster and cheaper carriage of the mails. In its Annual Report for 1899, the Post Office announced that it had tested the practicality of using the automobile to collect mail in Buffalo, New York. In 1901, the Post Office entered into its first contract to carry the mail by automobile between the Buffalo Post Office and a postal station in the Pan American Exposition grounds. Although it took 35 minutes to traverse the 4 1/2 miles between the two post offices, the U.S. professed great satisfaction with the contract and prepared for similar service on January 1, 1902, at Minneapolis.
From 1901 to 1914, the Post Office performed all of its vehicle service under contract. Then, unhappy with exorbitant rates and frequent frauds uncovered in these accounts, the Post Office asked for and received approval from Congress to establish the first government-owned motor vehicle service at Washington, D.C., on October 19, 1914.
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