Engineer George Pullman, Inventor of Sleeping and Eating on Trains

Meet the man responsible for "luxury for the middle class."
Marcia Wendorf

All it took was taking an uncomfortable train ride to convince engineer George Pullman to create the famous Pullman Sleeping Car.

Pullman was born in 1831 in New York state to a father who had invented a machine that used jackscrews to raise and move buildings. Upon his father's death in 1855, George took over his father's business, and in 1856, he won a contract to move 20 buildings out of the way of the expanding Erie Canal.

George Pullman
George Pullman Source: MyRedDice/Wikimedia Commons

In 1857, Pullman arrived in Chicago to help raise that city's buildings which, lying next to Lake Michigan, were frequently flooded. Chicago needed to lift its streets by 6 to 8 feet  (1.82-2.43 mt), and to lift its buildings by 4 and 6 feet (1.21-1.82 mt).

Jackscrew Source: Johnalden/Wikimedia Commons

Pullman's method for lifting buildings was so successful that his workers were able to lift the Tremont House, a six-story brick hotel, while its guests remained in their rooms.

In 1862, after Pullman's uncomfortable night on board a train, he got the idea to create a luxury sleeping train car that he dubbed, "The Pioneer." In a remarkable display of prescience, Pullman marketed his rail cars as "luxury for the middle class."

The only fly in the ointment was that The Pioneer's large size meant it wouldn't fit existing train platforms. Pullman solved that problem with the help of an extremely unfortunate event — the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Lincoln’s body was transported by train from Washington, D.C. to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and Pullman arranged to have several of his new rail cars included within the funeral train. That meant that every train station and bridge between the two cities had to be modified to accommodate Pullman's new rail car.

The publicity generated by Lincoln's final train ride turned the Pullman Sleeping Car into a runaway success. By 1867, George Pullman had 50 rail cars running on three different railroads.

Pullman Palace Car Company share
Pullman Palace Car Company share Source: Unbekannte Autoren und Grafiker/Wikimedia Commons

In 1867 Pullman became president of the new Pullman Palace Car Company. By 1879 the company had 464 rail cars available for lease, gross annual earnings of $2.2 million, and a net annual profit of almost $1 million. Besides rail cars, the company also manufactured and sold rail freight cars, refrigerated cars, street cars, and elevated train cars.

The "Pioneer"

Pullman's new rail car had rubberized springs that reduced shaking, its walls were clad in dark walnut, and its seats were covered by plush velvet. Silk window shades, crystal chandeliers, and brass fixtures added to the overall feeling of luxury.

But, it was at night that The Pioneer really shone. The car's seats unfolded into lower sleeping berths, and upper berths unfolded from the ceiling. In order to accomplish this transformation, Pullman hired African-American men who were newly freed after the Civil War, and they became known as the Pullman Porters.

Pullman Porter
A Pullman Porter Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Known for their starched white jackets, in addition to converting the rail cars into sleeping cars, the Pullman Porters also served as waiters, valets, and even entertainers. By the early 1900s, Pullman became the largest employer of African-Americans in post-Civil War America.

Pullman Porters worked on American trains until the Pullman Company ceased operations on December 31, 1968. Some former Pullman Porters continued working on Amtrak trains after that company was formed in 1971.

In 1925, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, Pullman Porters formed the first all-black union called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. That union was instrumental in the formation of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Pay for the Pullman Porters was poor, and most porters relied on passenger tips to make ends meet. However, the job had other benefits, it offered unlimited travel, and Pullman Porters developed a reputation for service which allowed them to move on to jobs at fine hotels and restaurants, and even the White House. 

The dining car and the covered vestibule

Next, George Pullman created two innovations that revolutionized train travel: the dining car and the covered vestibule between train cars. The dining car allowed food to be prepared and served on long train journeys, and the covered vestibule allowed passengers to move freely and safely between cars.

Dining car
Dining car Source: Great Northern Railway/Wikimedia Commons

Before the invention of the train vestibule, passengers had to step over a shifting plate between rail cars, with only a guard rail to hang on to. They were also exposed to the weather and ash coming from the locomotive.

Covered vestibule
Pullman covered vestibule Source: Chris McKenna/Wikimedia Commons

Pullman, the company town

In 1880 Pullman began building a factory and an adjacent company town located 14 miles (23 km) south of the city of Chicago. The town, called Pullman, included houses, stores, a church, theaters, parks, a hotel, and a library for workers in the Pullman factory.

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893
World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 Source: C. D. Arnold/Wikimedia Commons

The town of Pullman was a leading attraction for visitors attending the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, however, everything wasn't as bright as it seemed. George Pullman ruled the town like a feudal baron. He prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings, and open discussions. Pullman inspectors were even allowed to enter homes to inspect for cleanliness.

In 1894, an economic downturn caused demand for new rail cars to fall. In response, Pullman cut jobs and wages and increased working hours in his plant. At the same time, he didn't lower rents or the prices of goods sold in Pullman, and this led his workers to go on strike. 

The strike soon spread to other railways, and within a few days, more than 125,000 railway workers were on strike, and rail traffic on all lines west of Chicago had ground to a halt. President Grover Cleveland sent in troops to quell the strike and riots broke out. On July 7, 1894, national guardsmen fired into a mob, killing around 34 people. In 1898, a presidential commission began investigating the incident, and the Supreme Court of Illinois forced Pullman to divest his ownership of the town. Pullman was annexed to the city of Chicago.

Pullman's legacy

In the years following the strike, Pullman's company built cars for New York City's elevated train system, and it continued making rail cars until 1982. George Pullman died in 1897 at the age of 66, and he is buried at Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. His coffin rests under several tons of concrete, such was Pullman's worry that his body would be desecrated by labor activists.

In his will, Pullman bequeathed $1.2 million to establish the Pullman Free School of Manual Training for the children of employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, and for residents of the neighboring Roseland neighborhood.

Today, the George M. Pullman Educational Foundation provides money to college-bound high school seniors with merit-based and need-based scholarships to attend the college of their choice. To date, the Foundation has awarded $30 million to over 13,000 outstanding Cook County students.

In Washington State, the city of Pullman is named for George Pullman, because the town had expected him to build a railroad through there. Instead, Pullman built the route to the city of Spokane, Washington.

Additionally, in 1963, Mercedes-Benz released its 600 line which included a long-wheelbase model called "Pullman". Stretched versions of Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars were also called "Pullman".

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