By Megan McKinney
George Pullman and Philip Armour were among the Chicago founding tycoons for whom the road to Prairie Avenue detoured through the American West. Seed money for establishing companies that created great wealth could be made relatively quickly in the Gold Rush climate of the 19th century West, and not necessarily from precious metals.
Pullman had generated substantial money moving buildings horizontally and vertically; however, his dream of creating a hotel-like rail car would be an expensive undertaking. One solution might be the side trip that had already become a tradition among developing American magnates, as the following stories attest.
Placerville, California, home of the legendary Gold Rush.
In 1854, decades before Pullman and Armour had become two of the “Trinity of Chicago Business,” the 20-year-old Armour had staggered barefoot into the dingy village of Placerville, California. This was after traveling across America from his parents’ farm near Stockbridge, New York, much of the journey on foot. The auburn-haired young man—stocky and broad-shouldered for most of his life—had become gaunt from the ordeal, and, soon after arrival, he decided to veer from the uncertainty of gold panning.
He wasn’t the only Placerville hopeful to cut through to the West’s second tier—but sometimes considerable—riches.
What began as a side hustle for Levi Strauss is a multibillion dollar global industry, now in its third century.
Placerville miners required sturdy pants created of substantial fabric, which Levi Strauss, another recent Placerville arrival, began supplying to them in denim. Also necessary were wheelbarrows from John Mohler Studebaker—of the forthcoming automobile clan—and food and other provisions, provided by future railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. But prospectors also needed water, and it didn’t take P.D. Armour long to learn how to supply his gold panning neighbors with running water to separate gold from the dirt surrounding it, or how to control its flow. The foundation of great stockyards prosperity would soon emerge from the sale of plain water—free to Armour but dear to his customers.
Even Marshall Field, third member of Chicago’s “Trinity,” made an auxiliary fortune with a late 1870s silver mining venture in Leadville, Colorado—long after he personally required a stake.
Marshall and fellow department store tycoon Levi Leiter financed Chicago pioneer John Borden, a real estate attorney of some standing and father of mining engineer William Borden, in the venture. It didn’t take the Bordens long to produce a $4 million profit, which they and their backers split evenly. What was comparative pocket money for Marshall and Levi was a bonanza for the Bordens and the basis for real estate investment that would make them among the city’s wealthiest clans for several generations.
When Pullman needed money to perfect his dream, mining for precious metals was attracting young men out to Colorado, where a quick stake might be made. So George Pullman headed to Central City to enrich his coffers at the expense of successful miners with plentiful money, but little on which to spend it.
Central City, circa 1860, at about the time George Pullman arrived.
It was a period of money juggle for Pullman, who—while gaining income from various Central City businesses—was in turn spending it perfecting his dream in Chicago.
George’s Colorado profits went straight to sleeping car development. He and his partners—a pair of brothers, Benjamin and Norman Field—began by tinkering with two existing rail cars and, in the process, worked out a means for almost instantly transforming a coach into a sleeping car. Ten lower berths would be converted from hinged chairs, while an equal number of upper berths were lowered from the ceiling through a system of ropes and pulleys. The partners added a rudimentary restroom at each end of the car as well as a linen closet. It was far from George’s dream of luxury on wheels, but it was progress.
The cars, which cost $2,000 each to convert, were added to regular trains of two companies, and passengers paid a mere 50 cents premium to use them, making the Colorado businesses essential. George’s Central City conglomerate included two stores, a pair of quartz mills, a sawmill and a rental building, in addition to “a business to buy gold dust, freighting and haying operations and numerous mining schemes.” According to one account, Pullman made as much as $100,000 in three years from the Colorado enterprises.
The Chicago founders would always hold the West in high regard and later participated in taking its image beyond that of Cowboys-and-Indians by heralding the recreational aspects, particularly Pullman. Through the years, his Palace Cars publicized the West as “a land of breathtaking beauty and adventure.”
The Civil War did not halt George’s progress. When he returned to Chicago in 1863, he simply hired a mercenary to serve in the Union Army in his stead.
Next, he divested himself of partners and, during the winter and spring of 1864, set about organizing the team and workplace that would take him to his goal. After gaining use of a repair shop on the site of today’s Union Station, Pullman spent $20,000 in outfitting a plant and hiring a small crew of expert carpenters and mechanics. Together, they created a rail car that would make history—the soon to be famous Pioneer.
Consider this handsome building, with its stylish deco lettering, a monument to the birthplace of George Pullman’s Pioneer.
Next in Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties: Pullman’s Pride: Pioneer.
Robert F. Carl