FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: George Pullman Improved Railroad Passenger Comfort (Part 1)


Youth and career

George M. Pullman.  (Photo: Chicago Historical Society)
George M. Pullman.
(Photo: Chicago Historical Society)

George Pullman was born in Brocton, New York, on this date in 1831, the third of 10 children born to James and Emily Pullman. In 1845 the Pullman family moved to Albion, New York so that James Pullman, a carpenter, could find work on the Erie Canal. Pullman’s specialty was moving structures out of the way of the canal. He used screw jacks and a device he patented in 1841. James Pullman died in 1853 and his son George took over the business aged 22. In 1854, Pullman won a contract with New York State to move 20 buildings away from the Erie Canal path.

Raising the buildings of Chicago.  (Image:
Raising the buildings of Chicago. (Image:

Pullman then moved to Chicago, and in 1857 he opened a similar business. The buildings had to be raised above the Lake Michigan floodplain so that a modern sewer system could be installed. Pullman’s company was one of many hired to lift multi-story buildings and entire city blocks from four to six feet. However, Pullman realized that the city would not need his services for long after the major project was completed. Therefore, he explored several possibilities for a new business and he decided to manufacture and lease railroad cars.

American Railroads and the Gold Rush of the Late 1850s

Railroads had been growing across the country for nearly 30 years when Pullman decided to build wagons. Although used to transport raw materials and finished goods, railroads also carried passengers, and this became Pullman’s focus.

He frequently rode the railroads while pursuing his business; however, he did not appreciate them. Ordinary passenger cars were dirty and uncomfortable; rudimentary sleeping cars were just beginning to appear, but early cars had cramped beds and inadequate ventilation.

Pullman entered into a partnership with his friend Benjamin Field, a former New York State Senator. They decided to build a better sleeper car, focusing on comfort and luxury. Pullman persuaded the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad to let him convert two of its 44-foot-long passenger cars into prototype couchettes in 1858.

The Pullman sleeping car prototypes were very basic. Although they were a slight improvement over the existing sleeping cars, they had nothing to do with the luxurious train cars that would define the Pullman brand. Sleeping car prototypes were fitted with hinged seats that could be converted into lower berths. The upper iron bunks were fixed to the ceiling by ropes and pulleys, while curtains offered a little privacy. The retrofitted wagons held 10 sleepers each and had two very small bathrooms, one at each end of the wagon. Unfortunately, the wagons were unsuccessful and remained virtually unused.

A gold rush scene from Colorado Territory.  (Illustration:
A gold rush scene from Colorado Territory. (Illustration:

After the experiment failed, Pullman followed those from around the country who traveled to Colorado Territory after a gold discovery in 1859. He moved to Colorado, but instead of becoming a miner, he opened a profitable business that catered to the needs of miners. Along with its partners, Pullman opened the Cold Spring Ranch in Central City. The ranch quickly became popular with miners looking for a meal, bed, and supplies. Miners also stopped at the ranch to trade their teams of tired horses or mules for fresh animals before climbing the nearby mountain passes. Pullman’s first fortune came from supplying and hauling Colorado miners in the early 1860s, not the wagons he became known for.

The Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln

Pullman left Colorado and returned to Chicago in the 1860s. Like many wealthy men of the time, he hired another man to serve in his place during the Civil War. Rather than go to war, Pullman expands his business and decides to build new and luxurious train sleepers.

Pullman’s first completely new sleeping car was jointly developed with Field. The wagon was modeled after the accommodations in the ocean liners that traveled the Erie Canal during Pullman’s youth. Their Pullman berth or “palace car” was named “Pioneer” and was completed in 1864. The carriage was wider and taller than any previous carriage. Pullman used trucks (axles, wheels, and truck side frames) with rubberized springs to reduce the bouncing and jerking typical of wagons.

the pull man "Pioneer." (Photo:
The “Pioneer” Pullman. (Photo:

The Pioneer was equipped with thick curtains or silk blinds to cover the windows. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling of the wagon, which was painted with elaborate designs. The Pioneer’s walls had dark walnut panels, while the light fixtures were brass. The car seats were covered with plush padding. During the day, the couchette looked like a plusher version of a regular passenger car. However, at night the wagon was “transformed into a double-decker hotel on wheels”. The car seats were unfolded into lower bunks; upper berths unfolded from the ceiling. Sheets, blankets and privacy partitions were installed by Pullman porters to complete the effect of the hotel on wheels.

The only problem? Pullman cars did not match existing trains. The Pioneer was taller and wider than wagons of the day and could not pass through standard track tunnels and archways. Pullman requested that the railroads adapt their lines to suit his car, but they refused. According to American science and invention, when Pullman reviewed the Pioneer, he said, “My contribution was to build a car from a passenger comfort standpoint; existing practices and standards were secondary.

However, a national tragedy helped Pullman. Following the assassination of President Lincoln, a request from Mrs. Lincoln resulted in the government using Pullman cars for the funeral train journey. She requested the use of the Pioneer for her own private car on the trip from Chicago to Springfield. This necessitated hasty renovations to every station and bridge between Chicago and Springfield. The wishes of the widowed First Lady and the publicity that followed made the Pullman sleeping car an overnight success.

President Lincoln’s funeral car. (Picture:

New developments and a new city

The Pullman-Field partnership ended in 1867 and Pullman became president of the new Pullman Palace Car Company. That same year, Pullman introduced its first “hotel on wheels”. The Pullman President was a sleeping car that also had an attached kitchen and dining car. The food served was as good if not better than meals served in top restaurants and the service was impeccable. The Pullman Company hired black freedmen as Pullman porters.

By the 1870s, Pullman’s operations were nationwide. His company operated sleeping cars under contract with many railroads in the country. The wagons were manufactured at Detroit Works and Pullman set up subsidiaries to serve Britain and Europe.

A cutaway image of a Pullman sleeping car.  (Image:
A cutaway image of a Pullman sleeping car. (Image:

In 1879 the company had 464 cars leased to the railroads. The company’s annual gross profit reached $2.2 million, and its annual net profit reached nearly $1 million. In addition to Pullman sleepers, the company manufactured and marketed freight, passenger, and refrigerator cars, as well as cars for streetcars and elevated lines. The company had a market capitalization of over $36 million in the early 1890s.

In 1879, Pullman decided to build a new manufacturing plant and a town for its employees. In 1880 he purchased 4,000 acres adjacent to the location of his new wagon factory near Lake Calumet (about 14 miles south of Chicago) for $800,000. Located along the Illinois Central Railroad, the plant and the city had access to the transportation of raw materials, finished railcars, and passengers.

The city he built was called Pullman. Opened on January 1, 1881, the town was Pullman’s effort to address the issues of labor unrest and poverty. Among the original 1,300 structures were employee housing, shopping areas, churches, theaters, parks, a library, and an artificial lake. There was also an administration building and the Hotel Florence, which Pullman named after his daughter.

An illustration of Pullman, Illinois.  (Picture:
An illustration of Pullman, Illinois. (Picture:

Pullman believed that the facilities and somewhat remote location would deter “agitators” and that a lack of saloons and vice-towns in the city would result in a happy and loyal workforce. The planned community became a major attraction for visitors who attended the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. At the time, the national press praised Pullman for his benevolence and vision.

Pullman’s workforce was not required to live in the city (although they were strongly encouraged to do so). Rents charged by Pullman (which averaged $14 per month) were higher than those in surrounding communities, but many chose to reside in Pullman because living conditions were better (which was acknowledged by Pullman’s reviews).

However, as nice as the city may have been in some ways, Pullman expected it to turn a profit. The workers who lived in Pullman received two checks – one for rent and the other for their remaining wages. Checks were issued by a payer and a rent collector; the workers had to endorse and return the rent check. By 1892 the community was profitable, but at a cost.

What most didn’t realize was that Pullman was a company town and George Pullman ran it. Its housing reflected the social hierarchy of labor – detached houses were for executives, townhouses were for skilled or senior workers, apartment buildings were for unskilled workers, and rooming houses for ordinary workers. of the company. Pullman “banned independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings, or open discussions.” City inspectors entered homes to check cleanliness, and the company had the right to terminate leases on as little as 10 days’ notice.

Part 2 of this article will be published tomorrow on

A photo of Pullman, Illinois, which is now a national monument.  (Photo: National Park Service)
A photo of Pullman, Illinois, which is now a national monument. (Photo: National Park Service)

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