Arago: Exhibits

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Kicking and Screaming

President Wilson’s postmaster general, Albert Burleson, was not a fan of rural carriers. From almost the moment he took office Burleson began looking for ways to cut RFD costs. He encouraged Congress to transfer the entire service to contract “Star Routes,” which would mean the elimination of all RFD carrier positions. Even with a Democratic Congress, Burleson was unable to win any support for this idea. Unable to hand the service off to contractors, Burleson sought to use a new transportation tool to cut costs and speed up the service - the automobile. The Department had been testing automobiles to carry the mail as early as 1899. By 1915, Ford’s Model T and a number of other vehicles were becoming common sights along American roads.

In 1915, Burleson decided to switch rural carriers from horses to horsepower. He tasked postal officials with consolidating routes, moving horse-drawn carriers from 24-mile long routes to 50-mile long automobile routes. In the next two years, 939 rural routes were eliminated, along with most of the carriers. Rural carriers protested loudly to the switch. Even those who could afford to purchase automobiles for their routes were unhappy with the switch. The Department did not have enough postal inspectors to send out to help with route consolidation, so Burleson’s staff relied on changes made in Washington, DC, by officials using maps that in some cases were 10 to 20 years old. As one unhappy congressman put it, “new routes were established were there were no roads, over creeks where there were no bridges, over roads that are impassible.”

Photograph of Postmaster General Burleson

Postmaster General Albert Burleson