Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pullman Car and What It Did For Rail Travel

Sleeper car, 1838 diagram. Public Domain
Railway history is really a part of American history in general. The history of trains in America is a history of innovation and overcoming obstacles and eventually the railroad made it possible to journey coast to coast in relative comfort. There's one particular innovation in railroad history that helped make a long train journey much more pleasant for it's passengers.

George Pullman

In a story that in some ways is similar to the one about Fred Harvey and his ideas to improve dining and hotel facilities for railroad travelers, so is the story of George Pullman and his desire to improve the accommodations of rail cars themselves. The tale is that after spending the night sleeping in his seat on a train trip from Buffalo to Westfield New York, George Pullman decided to design an improved passenger rail car that actually contained sleeping berths.

Pullman essentially decided that there had to be a better way. His background had been in cabinet making and as a building contractor and he eventually became one of America's leading industrialists during the boom years of the industrial revolution. It should be noted that sleeping cars had actually first appeared in the 1830's, however, the early sleeper cars were not that comfortable at all as you might gather by viewing the interior drawing at left. The Pullman car was not only comfortable but quite luxurious as well.

In some ways, the Pullman car is what you will see in some of today's Amtrak trains. During the day, the berth was folded up and at night the arrangement folded down into a bunk bed. In other words, what was a seat during the day turned into a bed at night. In today's rail cars there are separate compartments with doors. In Pullman's 19th century designs, the compartment's privacy was a curtain. Not great by today's standards but quite an improvement from sleeping in your seat. In the Pullman cars there were washrooms at each end which is also similar to many Amtrak cars.

George Pullman actually went several steps further. When he organized his company in 1862 and started manufacturing rail cars, he built luxury. The Pullman cars were noted for carpeting, draperies, upholstered chairs, libraries and card tables. The Pullman rail cars were a big step forward in 1800's travel. This truly was a step forward in 19th century rail travel and it brought even more customers to the railroad lines. Imagine for a moment this type of travel compared to riding the old Butterfield Stage Lines.

The Pullman Company in Chicago

Night configuration in Pullman car
George Pullman's base of operations was in Chicago Illinois. In fact, the Pullman Company was of such size that the company had a town, or you could say suburb of Chicago, to house it's employees. The Pullman Palace Car Company, it's official name, found a large labor pool with the thousands of immigrants who had relocated to Chicago for employment opportunities. In 1880, and at a cost of some $8 million, Pullman founded the town of Pullman, Illinois on three thousand acres west of Lake Calumet.This was a town in every sense of the word where employees could work, live and play.

The Violent Pullman Strike

There's a lot of history written about the great Pullman Company strike that occurred in Chicago during the financial depression of the mid 1890's. This particular financial panic was probably the largest to that date. As a result, there were massive layoffs throughout the country and in particular in the railroad industry. The Pullman's Company town of Pullman, Illinois was the site of a particularly vicious labor strike beginning in May 1894. During the months leading up to this strike, the Pullman company had reduced workers' wages but at the same time did not lower the cost of living in its company houses.

 On May 11th of that year the workers went on strike and literally shut down the company factory. The workers had joined the ARU which was headed by Eugene Debs. Pullman refused to deal with the American Railroad Union and the strike escalated into violence not yet seen before. The strike grew as other labor unions joined the picket line and for all intents and purposes the nation's railroads were brought to a standstill. The strike spread all the way to the west coast where laborers refused to do any work related to Pullman cars. The strike even grew outside of Pullman car issues where even most of the Southern Pacific's narrow gauge routes were idled.

Narrow hall in one Pullman car design
Things became so bad in Chicago that in addition to the local militia, the U.S. Army was called in, under the direction of none other than General Nelson Miles of Indian War fame, to bring order.

The strike officially ended on July 11, 1894 but not before Eugene debs was jailed for charges of inciting violence. The Pullman factory reopened a short time later but refused to give back any jobs to union members participating in the strike.

It's interesting to read more about the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the U.S. Army's involvement. Generally, the army, by act of Congress, tried to stay away from civilian law enforcement as it does today. Many of the rank and file soldiers probably had more in common with the strikers than they did with the industrialists. Any time the military became involved in civilian disputes, the charges flew in both directions.

Many of course believed that the military was used as a strike breaking tool. In a sense it may have but by the same token there needed to be a way to stop the violence thus the use of the army in this instance. The army would be used in future decades to stop the violence and killing in other labor disputes such as in the mining industry strikes of the early 1900's.

The Pullman Car In Railroad History

By the year 1899, Pullman bought up most of it's competitors such as the Wagner Palace Car Company, and virtually operated as a monopoly the Pullman Palace Car Company. There a lot of interesting historic facts regarding the Pullman Palace Car Company. As one example, the son of the late president Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln was onetime president of the Pullman Palace Car Company after George Pullman's death.

Yet another fact is that the Pullman car was included as part of President Lincoln’s funeral train in May of 1865. The Pullman car received so much publicity from this event alone that the name became famous for luxury train travel. As a result, the Pullman cars received a deserved place in American railway history.

The End of the Pullman Car Area

Southern Pacific diesel locomotive
By the 1960's, almost one hundred years after the company's founding, the Pullman cars were largely taken out of service. For the benefit of historians and railroad enthusiasts everywhere, several Pullman cars were saved so future generations could have a chance to revisit this part of American history.

Another fact is that the Pullman Palace Car Company built various models of rail cars. One was named the "Joseph Pulitzer". It was one of the very last Pullman observation cars. This particular rail car was built in 1947 and was named after Joseph Pulitzer, the famed publisher of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the founder of the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism. This particular car ran on the route from St. Louis Missouri to San Antonio Texas. This run was known as  "The Texas Special" and operated until 1956. The same route is still in operation today as one of the Amtrak routes between Chicago and San Antonio.

There were no doubt great improvements for rail passengers at the turn of the century. Other interesting stories include what Fred Harvey did for dining with the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Also interesting is the construction of snow sheds in the Sierra Nevada mountains which enabled the transcontinental railroad to be completed.

There's another interesting piece of history related to another Pullman car named the "Sunbeam". The rail car was built in 1888 and was first named the "Ortego". Later it was renamed Sunbeam. The Sunbeam's history also involves U.S. Presidents. William McKinley once traveled aboard the car. When Theodore Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee while campaigning in 1912, he was transported to Chicago in the car for medical treatment.Today, this very same historic Pullman car is on display at the Robert Todd Lincoln Home in Manchester Vermont. A great historic stop when vacationing in Vermont.

The Pullman Company and the Changing Times

Southern Pacific emblem
The Pullman Company and it's Pullman cars existed well into the 20th century although there were a number of mergers and acquisitions along the way.

The Pullman Company as well as the railroad industry in general was affected by Americans hitting the roadway in their new automobiles.

This was first realized in the 1930's with the completion on improved highways such as the old Route 66. During the late 1950's and years afterward the interstate highway system allowed people to travel by car even faster.

The expanding airline industry also took it's toll on the railroads. Nevertheless, railroad travel is still enjoyed by many and sometimes it's just fun taking the slower and more relaxed mode of transportation that trains provide. Amtrak still offers very good service on many of the historic railway routes. These include the Empire Builder from Minnesota to Seattle, the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland and the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. Another Western Trips article with photos you'll find interesting is Amtrak's popular Coast Starlight route.


Visit the California State Railroad Museum

If you have not visited the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento I would recommend that you do. There are many good railroad museums throughout the country and the railroad museum in Sacramento might be one of the very best. Railway history comes alive at this museum. Even if you might not happen to be a railroad enthusiast you will still have a great time touring this museum.

 The California State Railroad Museum is located in Old Town Sacramento and has one of the finest collections of vintage railcars under roof than you'll find anywhere. Educational opportunities abound at the California State Railroad Museum. The California State Railroad Museum is well known as a destination for school field trips. This museum makes a great addition to your family summer vacation planner.

(Article copyright Western Trips)

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