The ease and charm of late 19th century life took a giant leap forward, thanks to George Pullman.
By Megan McKinney
Even by the most elaborate Victorian standards, Pioneer, Pullman’s prototype sleeping car, was sumptuous, outfitted with a black walnut interior, thick carpeting, plush upholstery, velvet curtains, elegant chandeliers and ceiling murals. He had finally achieved his dream of fine hotel luxury on wheels.
In pushing the limits of luxe, the willful Pullman had knowingly exceeded the height and width specifications of ordinary rail cars; therefore, in order to use his car, railroad companies would have to widen bridges, cut back station platforms and even raise some viaducts. Understandably, they were unwilling to do so. According to legend, what might have been a dead end for George Pullman was suddenly reversed by national tragedy, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—and some excellent connections.
The President’s funeral cortege was scheduled to stop in Chicago as it wound slowly on its circuitous route carrying Lincoln’s casket from Washington to burial in Springfield. The head of the committee planning arrangements for the funeral train on its last lap from Chicago to Springfield was Colonel James H. Bowen, who was also Pullman’s banker. Bowen and his committee of Chicago businessmen—other Pullman friends including Marshall Field—determined that the Pioneer should be attached to the funeral train.
The Chicago and Alton Railroad hastily made alterations, and the nation’s newspapers reported in detail on the gradual progress of the cortege as, day after day, it inched slowly toward Springfield, stopping at towns along the route, its engine bell tolling. The publicity secured Pullman’s position, forcing the railroads to make the necessary adjustments and transforming rail travel for decades to come.
A luxurious hotel room on wheels.
Before long, ordinary travelers could spend an additional $2 to ride in the elegant green trains composed of luxury coaches that were turned almost instantly into sleeping cars.
A lounge car.
A dining car.
The superb service of the gracious dining car staff.
They were able to enjoy civilized meals with wine in a full-service dining car and have use of a “composite car” with a barbershop, bathing facilities, telegraph capability and other passenger amenities, including a smoking and reading room where alcoholic beverages might be purchased.
The legendary Pullman porter.
It was characteristic of Pullman’s controlling nature to insist that Pullman cars were to be owned, supplied and staffed by him and merely leased to the rail companies. And, because of the popularity of his product, his wishes prevailed.
Following the Civil War, Pullman’s company was one of the largest employers of African-Americans, but not because of enlightenment on George’s part (they couldn’t live in the Pullman village, for instance). He didn’t pay them a real wage initially; therefore, the men had to make the majority of their money from tips.
In 1925, following 58 years of long hours, demanding work and poor compensation, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a pioneering African-American union then led by A. Philip Randolph, was organized. The chief complaint was that the porters’ meager pay, even combined with tips, did not produce a living wage. Their slogan was “fight or be slaves.”
A. Philip Randolph.
Even at that, a contract between the BSCP and the Pullman Company wasn’t signed until April 25, 1937, producing the first such agreement involving a union of African-American workers and a major American corporation.
Next in Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties: The Pullmans: George and Hattie.
Robert F. Carl