It Happened Here: Railway Express Agency Delivers Goods to the Yakima Valley | Come
Before UPS, FedEx, or Amazon delivery drones, if you needed to send or receive a package, you looked for an express agency.
For half of the 20th century, the Railway Express Agency used a network of trucks and trains to move a wide variety of items – from documents to circus animals – across the country. And it also served as a lifeline for the people of the Yakima Valley, providing quick access to goods from across the country.
America’s long and complicated relationship with railroads began in 1827, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was chartered to carry passengers and freight. At a time when power usually involved literal horsepower, rail provided a fast and efficient means of transporting goods.
But in 1839, a Massachusetts ticket agent realized that this system could be used to move smaller, more valuable items, especially cash or sensitive documents that needed to be transported quickly or more securely than the postal service.
William Francis Harnden advertised his service to move items from Boston to New York by rail. Its express service promised a daily drive between the two cities, with an army of agents who could be tasked with delivering goods to their destination quickly and safely.
The reality of its first race was much less elaborate than its prospectus implied. Instead of a group of agents and a dedicated car, it was Harnden with a conveyor belt carrying the packages himself. But the idea caught on, Harnden and his partner expanded the business to include passenger service from Europe.
One of Harnden’s managers, Henry Wells, then started a competing service, Wells Fargo, which used stagecoaches for express runs before becoming a bank. Another competitor was American Express, now more famous for the credit card you can’t leave home without.
Doug Shearer, a board member of the Northern Pacific Railway Museum in Toppenish, said the services allowed people to order large items from distant merchants and have them brought to remote places like the Yakima Valley. A Valley family had a piano delivered by express service in the early 20th century, he said.
When the United States entered World War I, the federal government took control of the various express companies under the umbrella of the American Railway Express Co. The reasoning was that the various services were not coordinated enough to support the war effort and had to be centralized. .
What began as a wartime response turned into an agency that would operate for more than a decade until the railroads decided to take it over – and the profits – in return.
In 1929, a consortium of railroad companies bought out the American Railroad Express Co., with each new owner’s share of the cost based on the miles of track they owned. The new company became the Railway Express Agency, which quickly gained a reputation for being able to move almost anything almost anywhere.
Under REA, rail depots served as hubs for delivery service. Goods ranging from films, musical instruments and animals could move quickly from one city to another by the trains. At each station, a fleet of REA trucks stood ready to transport packages to and from the station’s express room.
One of these REA stations was at the Northern Pacific Railway’s Toppenish depot. For people living in the Yakima Valley, the REA was a way to get items sent or delivered faster than the Postal Service could.
But the REA’s days were numbered. At the time of its inception, trains were still the fastest and most efficient way to move goods across the country, and for large amounts of freight they still are.
But with the development of the interstate highway system and the overall improvement in road quality, truckers have made inroads into express service. Meanwhile, planes could transport goods across the country in hours, compared to the days it takes a train to travel from coast to coast.
In 1975, the REA reached the end of the line and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But his legacy lives on at the Northern Pacific Railway Museum in Toppenish, located in the former Toppenish depot. The museum group has restored the old train station express room to its original appearance. The room features artifacts from that era. Some of these items were originally in the office.
Among the items in the collection are one of the original safes from the depot’s express room which was bequeathed to the museum by a former depot employee, and a restored REA delivery truck which was found parked near a fruit warehouse in the Lower Valley.