LIMA — Today we have FedEx and UPS; we can ship goods anywhere in the United States within a day. One hundred years ago, the Railway Express Agency was the way to transport goods across the country.
Railway Express was born during World War I when, on June 30, 1918, after nationalizing the railroads the U.S. government did the same for express services, which at that time consisted of about five companies including American Express and Wells Fargo. The move coincided with the introduction of motorized trucks to speed up delivery.
Although closely tied to the railroads, some of which held stock in the company, Railway Express was not actually a railroad. It acted as a third party in handling all express shipments which the railroads otherwise would have to handle.
Near the front end of many passenger trains during the heyday of Railway Express would be a car bearing the red-diamond sign of the Railway Express Agency. The trademark sign became a common sight across the country on baggage carts and the green Railway Express delivery trucks. In Lima, the first Railway Express office (the company was known as American Railway Express until 1929) was at 333 N. Main St., according to the 1918 City Directory.
From live turkeys and chinchillas to Soap Box Derby cars to jewelry and other valuables, the Railway Express Agency handled almost anything that could be shipped. This proved irresistible to criminals. As early as 1919, The Lima News reported a thief was caught attempting to sell a $100 clarinet he’d pilfered from the Railway Express office for a bargain price of $20. That same year, the News reported about $500 worth of goods, including a typewriter, was stolen. In 1923, a man was caught stealing two cases of ginger ale from the Lima office.
Thieves in Cleveland dreamed bigger. In 1921, according to a wire service story in the News, they tampered with rails near Willoughby in the hopes of derailing a 14-car Railway Express train carrying about $1 million in goods. Although the train left the tracks, none of the cars overturned, and none of the loot spilled out.
That same year, in Lima, the News reported, narcotics agents uncovered a “gigantic dope ring.” Early in November 1921, agents tracked a shipment of morphine and cocaine worth $100,000 from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Railway Express facility at the Baltimore & Ohio station in Lima. Eventually, several local people, including Railway Express workers, were convicted for involvement in the drug ring.
Although the accounts of drug rings and robberies grabbed the headlines, Railway Express on a daily basis was running a thriving business in communities large and small across the country. And, in 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the company announced it would inaugurate aerial delivery across the continent.
Sadly, this piece of good news was tainted with tragedy. Early in September 1927, Daniel G. Cline, a native of Auglaize County whose parents were living in Lima, was killed while surveying the route from Boston to New York when his plane went down in fog in Connecticut. On his tombstone in Walnut Hill Cemetery in Auglaize County is engraved an open-cockpit Fokker Universal, the type of plane the World War I and nine-year air mail service veteran was piloting when he died.
Aerial delivery, like that using surface transportation, proved susceptible to daring thieves. The News reported that bandits would attach themselves to the airplanes, and open the doors by any means necessary. They would quickly loot the plane, then parachute away, leaving the aircraft exposed and vulnerable.
Railway Express also was plagued by strikes, often during the busy Christmas season. Additionally, work stoppages occurred whenever the agency’s lifeline, the railroads, experienced strikes or other problems. In the aftermath of World War II, when a coal shortage forced the railroads to cut back on passenger train service, Railway Express felt the pinch. On Dec. 6, 1946, the News reported the Lima Railway Express office would lay off 25 of its 46 employees,
Generally, however, business was good in the 1940s. “More than 10,000 trains traveling daily on 230,000 miles of track throughout the United States on passenger train schedules are employed in carrying 179,000 shipments annually, according to the Railway Express,” an article in the News in October 1944 revealed.
Two years later, in October 1946, the News wrote that “September saw the largest number of Railway Express shipments through the Lima office in 20 years, possibly ever, according to W.M. Dalton, Lima agent.” More than 25,000 individual shipments were recorded, breaking the previous mark of 23,000 set in August, Dalton told the News.
Business did not stay good, however. “Alas, things crumbled after World War II which coincided with a rapid decline in rail travel,” according to the America Rails website. “Express shipments had always been handled as dead-end traffic and railroads grew increasingly disinterested in subsidizing a business model losing ever-more money.”
Although the company hung on for years, the end finally came along with the recession in 1975. In February, the Railway Express Agency, known simply as REA since 1969, filed for bankruptcy. With the company losing money hand over fist for years, it was now in exponential debt. On average, REA had lost $50 million a year since 1969.
In November 1975, Tom Kole, REA board chairman, told the press that the recession “has literally pulled the rug out from under our carefully planned recovery program ….” Disappearing along with 8,000 jobs was all the REA’s property, including those once familiar green trucks with the red-diamond signs, which was sold at auction.
Reach Meg Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org.