Richard Warner, D.D.S.
Warner Family Dentistry in Council Bluffs
Richard Warner, D.D.S. General Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa
Council Bluffs Moved the Mail
Without checking your smart phone could you quickly locate Crabtree, Oregon on a map? How about Potlatch, Idaho? Up until not that long ago there were hundreds of men in Council Bluffs that could have precisely pinpointed the locations of these and just about any other town, and way faster than anyone could even Google it. These were the postal clerks of the Council Bluffs Mail Terminal, who were trained to instantly recognize the names of thousands of towns and in a split second send each piece of mail off in the right direction. The Council Bluffs crew could process 14,000 letters an hour.
Since the 1860s mail had been sorted on board trains in transport by the Railway Mail Service. When those trains arrived in Council Bluffs the mail was taken off for transfer amongst the eight major railroad lines connecting here to continue its journey. There was quite a bit of it; by 1910 the city was handling over 25 million pieces of mail a year. Council Bluffs postal employee H.B. Stowe suggested that rather than just have the mail sit around awaiting its connecting train the sorting process could continue here. Shelves were installed in a red brick building leased from the Union Pacific, adjacent to the railroad’s Transfer Hotel just south of today’s Golden Spike monument on 9th Avenue. This simple idea grew into what would become one of the city’s largest employers for several decades and was widely copied all over the United States.
Though larger mail terminals were built across the country, Council Bluffs' always remained one of the busiest in the nation and boasted the fastest mail processing time of any. It was an around the clock operation with three shifts that added as many as 400 seasonal workers each Christmas to handle the holiday mail.
The impact of such an industry on a city’s economy could be quite significant, a fact not lost on civic leaders of other communities. Threats to lure all or part of the operation from Council Bluffs were frequent. To counter this two thirds of the once grand Transfer Hotel was razed and a modern new building constructed on the site in 1938. The north wing of the hotel was retained for use as a lunch room and for employee lockers.
The mail terminal’s eventual demise came as the result of five digits: the zip code. In 1965 the postal service announced its plan to speed the mail by eliminating large terminals like the one in Council Bluffs where mail was sorted by hand in favor of regional section centers outfitted with automated equipment that could electronically read zip codes and mechanically process the mail.
The mail terminal closed in 1966; employees with sufficient seniority were reassigned to the post offices in Council Bluffs and Omaha, others were offered transfers to postal facilities elsewhere in the country. The remainder of the Transfer Hotel was torn down shortly afterward, but the glass and steel building that housed the mail sorting operation still stands today.
(Story by Dr. Richard Warner; photos courtesy of Robert Warner, Sr., a postal clerk at the mail terminal from 1952 until it closed in 1966).