What happened to St. Louis’ pneumatic-tube mail system?

What happened to St. Louis’ pneumatic-tube mail system?

When New York launched its pneumatic-tube mail system in the fall of 1897, postal workers tested it out by sending canisters loaded with a Bible wrapped in an American flag, an artificial peach, a suit of clothes, and a live cat. When St. Louis launched its pneumatic-tube mail system several years later, it was a more sober affair, with boring old mail.

“Postmaster Wyman issued invitations to several hundred citizens to witness the first operation of the new pneumatic postal tube service,” The Weekly Record wrote in July 1904. “The device will be operated from the main office to the substation at Eighteenth Street and Clark Avenue. When the repairs are completed on the Eads Bridge, the service will be extended to East St. Louis.”

These days, we’re jaded about the modern-use pneumatic tubes we encounter while running mundane errands to the bank and pharmacy drive-throughs, so they might not seem quite as special. But in 1904, the technology would’ve been thrilling. Only major cities had a pneumatic mail service; London inaugurated its system in 1853. Philadelphia’s went live in 1893, followed by Boston, New York, and Chicago. And if Chicago had one, it was imperative that St. Louis have one, too.

So in 1900, the St. Louis Manufacturers’ Association convened a pneumatic-tube mail committee. Working with the tube company and the post office, the committee aimed to have the system functional by the World’s Fair. “Postal officials are determined that the tube system installed in St. Louis shall be the best in the country, and in the world, if it can be made,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote in 1903.

Alas, pushing to début our pneumatic mail system around the time of the World’s Fair doomed it. It coincided with another technology that St. Louis did excel at for a spell: automobiles. It was also expensive, confined to a fairly narrow delivery route, and clogged up during peak mail times.

When the postmaster general decided to kill pneumatic mail delivery in 1916, the St. Louis business community convened a delegation to Washington to plead for its survival. “The St. Louisans have prepared a strong line of arguments to combat the contentions of Postmaster General Burleson that the pneumatic tube system in all cities except New York be discontinued because automobile trucks would furnish equally good service at a large saving to government,” the Globe reported in December 1916.

By the following year, St. Louis’ mail had ceased to travel underground. New York, however, continued to deliver quite a lot of mail (though not cats) that way until the early 1950s.

What Lies Beneath

A few other notable entries in St. Louis’ subterranean history

Cherokee Cave

Between 1950 and 1960, visitors could stop in at the Cherokee Cave museum, at 3400 S. Broadway, then head underground to view old lagering cellars, underground waterfalls, and the cave itself. The cave entrance was sealed off by the highway department, which buried the site under I-55.

Uhrig’s Cave

In 1852, German brothers Franz and Ignatz Uhrig remodeled a limestone cave at Jefferson and Washington into a vaulted-ceiling beer cellar with a 3,000-seat theater and a narrow-gauge railroad to shuttle beer drinkers to the Uhrigs’ brewery.

English Cave

As Chris Naffziger reported for SLM, the existence of the “Area 51 of St. Louis caves” was confirmed in March 2020, thanks to the English Cave Steering Committee. Find the whole story here.

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