Wednesday, May 14 2014 09:13 AM

Pen in Hand: John Alexander and the days of the vanished Railway Express Agency

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John Alexander is one of the few remaining former Railway Express Agency messengers and he volunteers as a docent at the Tehachapi Depot.

Today most packages and parcels moving around the United States are carried in the trucks and airplanes of UPS, FedEx, the US Postal Service and DHL Express. For nearly 60 years, however, huge numbers of America's small shipments went by railroad, often in a national monopoly called the Railway Express Agency. Tehachapi resident John Alexander was hired on in the later days of the Railway Express Agency, and he stayed with the company for many years until the sun finally set on railroad package delivery and the REA ceased operations in 1975.

John was born in Omaha, Nebraska on July 30, 1938, one of five children belonging to truck driver Charles Alexander and his wife Madeleine, and raised in the small town of Blair, north of Omaha. When he was 10 or 12 years old, one of John's first jobs was selling copies of the Omaha World Herald(a newspaper which is still published and now owned by Nebraska native son Warren Buffett) to cars on an auto bridge -- the cars would stop to pay their toll, and John would sell them a paper through the window of their car. And sometimes they'd drive off without waiting for their change, providing the youngster with a tip.

John began his association with the REA in 1961. An uncle of his had worked for the REA, and he called John's stepmother and told her to send John down to the company office to apply. John had served four years in the Navy as an aircraft mechanic, including two years spent in Bermuda, and was now 23 and out of work.

"My uncle had already spoken on my behalf, so as soon as I handed them my application, they offered me a job,'" John recalls. "I was still wiping the ink off my fingers from the fingerprinting they did of me, when they told me to show up tomorrow at 8 a.m." John's task that first day had him working with a man who had first been hired by a railroad in 1900 -- the man was 80 years old and still working, and John helped him loading packages on a hand-pulled freight wagon. "All my co-workers were older people who had 40 or 50 years of experience," John says, "I was definitely the new guy at the company."

The Railway Express Agency itself had been formed in 1917 from a group of smaller express agencies -- some railroads originally had their own package services, plus there were the four large companies: Adams Express Company, Southern Express Company, American Express Company, and Wells Fargo. During World War I, the U.S. government, concerned about the safe and efficient movement of packages, money and other goods around the country, consolidated the multiple different express companies into the REA, which was jointly owned by 86 different railroads in proportion to the amount of express traffic on their lines.

The next night after John's first day at work, he was called out to go on a train as part of a Railway Express train crew, riding on the Chicago Great Western railroad from Omaha to Minneapolis. It was a night milk train, hauling milk from small towns into the cities, in addition to the REA cars. "At each stop we'd have to move cargo in or out of the depots, but once the train got moving, we had some time on our hands," John remembers. "Inside one of the Railway Express cars had to be the biggest moveable card game in the state of Iowa," he laughs, "We played about 16 different kinds of poker, and I usually made about $30 a week on cards, in addition to the $80 I got on my paycheck."

The Railway Express carried all manner of goods, from cash and ordinary packages to poisonous snakes, pets, black powder, farm equipment (which were notoriously heavy packages that the Railway Express workers called "farm jewelry"), mail order items, etc. John remembers one night when he signed for a package that was said to contain $900,000, and then at the next stop there was another package containing $600,000 and so on throughout the night until he had about $20 million. Such valuable shipments carried the risk of robbery, so John was always armed with an old .38 Police Special, a six-gun revolver that had "Adams Express" stamped into it during its earlier service with the now defunct company.

Railway Express like the fact that John was single and so he would go wherever they asked him to work. In the summer of 1962 he was working out of Billings, Montana, on the Burlington Northern railroad and he heard there was an opening in California. So he bid on the position, got it, and when he left Billings in the month of September to move to Los Angeles, there was already 9 inches of snow on the ground. John worked out of the famed Union Station in LA for about 9 years, and it was while living in LA that he married his wife Hortencia, and they had three children: Katy, Claudia and Paul. At that time there were about 800 REA employees in LA, and around Christmas time business would increase five or six-fold, with groups of as many as 25 cars filled with Christmas packages heading east to be delivered.

Improvements in the nation's highways and interstates continued to whittle away at the railroads' business in passengers, however, and as mail and packages increasingly began to move by trucks instead of rail, REA's business declined. The company finally went out of business and declared bankruptcy in 1975.

John worked in several different occupations after REA folded. He had gone to college, working around his railroad schedule, and graduated from Cal State LA with a degree in business law in 1972, and he eventually obtained teaching credentials as well. He was a substitute teacher, worked in real estate, opened a furniture store on Tehachapi Boulevard in 1986, and eventually taught at Lancaster State Prison as well as in Special Ed for L.A. County, finally retiring from teaching in 2011. The Alexanders were one of the earlier purchasers of lots in Bear Valley Springs, buying one in 1980, and their two younger children, Claudia and Paul, both graduated from THS. John and Hortencia have four grandkids, and John is a docent at the Tehachapi Depot Museum.

Since John was one of the younger hires at the Railroad Express, and the company went out of business 40 years ago, there aren't many REA messengers surviving today. John Alexander is a lively, interesting connection back to the earlier days when America depended more on its railways than its highways.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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