At Ninety Miles an Hour - Page 1

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        They called it a race for a million, but that gives small notion of what had been going on those months back in the late 1890s when the great mail hustling order was sent out. Locomotives tore through the night between Chicago and the Missouri River faster than locomotives ever before were driven; rival engineers keyed up beyond what human nerves can bear, but bound to 'get there, or smash something.' Superintendents, train dispatchers, and their kind were lying awake nights trying to figure out how the schedule could be shaved down 10 minutes. All this was exciting enough, but the struggle then on between the Chicago & North Western and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy‑‑or rather the struggle that each one of these roads was against all records in the world‑‑stood for much more ban any paltry million‑dollar mail contract that might have been forwarded from Chicago to Omaha. It stood for a business day saved a crossing the continent. It meant that tons of mail from the Atlantic Coast could reach California and Oregon so that bankers and businessmen there received their drafts and other money papers before 3:00 on a certain day, instead of at noon on the following day. It meant a day saved in steamer connections for China and the Orient.

        Thanks to courtesies of railroad officials and post office authorities, people then could watch the carrying of this transcontinental mail in the hottest, maddest part of its sweep between the oceans. People could journey with it across Illinois and Iowa, where level ground and keenest competition offered such a spectacle of flying mail service as had not been seen before or since letters and engines came upon the earth.
        At 8:30 pm any night you please, and for miles the yards of East Chicago lights were swinging, semaphore arms were moving, men in the clicking signal towers were juggling with electric buttons and pneumatic levers, target lights on a hundred switches were changing from red to green, from green to red. Everything was clear, everything was all right. The Lake Shore Mail was coming, with 80 tons of letters and papers in its pouches. Relays of engines and engineers and firemen, the picked men of the road and the pet locomotives, had brought these messages, this news of the world thus far on their journey. Up the Hudson they had come and across the Empire State and along the shores of Lake Michigan, nearly a thousand miles in 24 hours, which was not so bad. Formerly this same mail reached Chicago at midnight, and did not go on again until three in the morning. Now we would see it start for Omaha in a single hour, and before that, it must be unloaded and piled into vans and hauled across the city, then loaded again. Only a local transfer here, but watch it if you would have had some idea of the hurry involved in this business.
        Outside the station, 10 of the largest mail wagons waited, drawn up like fire engines, two big horses per wagon. The platform crew worked like circus men packing the big tents away. There was a rumbling of trucks, a bumping and thudding of leather, and presently off went the horses west on Van Buren Street, north on Pacific Avenue, then, swinging into Jackson Boulevard (where no other heavy traffic was allowed), they made a dead run for the river, with the same right of way that ambulances have. The drivers did not cease to ply their whips as they neared the bridge, for they knew that a city ordinance held the draw for the passage of this mail.

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