Miss Nellie: The Smiths Grove Woman Protecting the L&N Trains

Here at the Historic Railpark and Train Museum, some of the most noteworthy impact history of the railroad is the rails’ involvement in the evolution of the postal industry. While on our guided railcar tour, guests can learn about the inner workings of postage on the rails while actually inside the L&N RPO #1107. Our tour guides educate about all of the details of postal railroad history, from the hiring process for postal workers in railcars to the story of Owney who was a dog that travel and “delivered” mail all over the world. As we learn on the tour, the postal service was extremely successful using the railways with an intricate sorting system as well as means to get the postage on and off of the railcar. Towns along the L&N railroad had a special crane designed to hold out the haul of postage up towards a mechanical catching arm as it sped by, reducing the overall travel time of the train, and streamlining the incoming mail collection process. This process required extensive reliability by the handling employee, which is how “Miss Nellie” of Smiths Grove became a household name as an integral component of mail service in Kentucky.

The motto of U.S. Postal Service is as follows:

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swife completion of their appointed rounds.”

Mrs. Nellie Oaks, known as “Miss Nellie,” to trainmen, was described to be the embodiment of this motto. While her main focus was to ensure proper functioning mechanisms of the Smiths Grove mail crane, she went what many would describe as “above and beyond” her duties by keeping lookout for issues that may awry as the train rolled on. Because of her sharp eye, she was able to identify dangerous signs that could potentially lead to derailment or delays. She developed a system to notify trainmen as they passed if she could see an external issue like sticking brake, “hotbox,” or shifting freight. The trainmen awaited her signals, a “highball” if everything checked out or a “washout” to signify there was a noticeable issue. If for some reason she was unable to stop the train approaching disaster, she would quickly telephone right here to the Bowling Green L&N Depot! Despite facing the brunt of Kentucky winters and perform a risky task,

Miss Nellie and the “Hanging Mail” trade has long been retired, but her legacy and postage railway history are still here! The Historic RailPark and Train Museum serves as a beacon of Kentucky railroad history as well as an educational center of economic trades during the Industrial Revolution. Come see the L&N RPO #1107 yourself on our guided railcar tour… maybe you can take Miss Nellie’s place at the mechanical arm catcher!

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