Biography of George Pullman, Inventor of the Railroad Sleeping Car

Roald Amundsen Pullman Private Railroad Car
Teemu008/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

George Mortimer Pullman (March 3, 1831–Oct. 19, 1897) was a cabinet-maker turned building contractor turned industrialist who developed the Pullman sleeping car in 1857. Pullman's sleeper, designed for overnight passenger travel, was a sensation that revolutionized the railroad industry, replacing the uncomfortable sleeping cars that had been used on American railroads since the 1830s. But he paid a price in labor union animosity that followed him to his grave.

Fast Facts: George M. Pullman

  • Known For: Developing the Pullman railroad sleeper car
  • Born: March 3, 1831 in Brocton, New York
  • Parents: James Pullman, Emily Pullman
  • Died: Oct. 19, 1897 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Spouse: Harriett Sanger
  • Children: Florence, Harriett, George Jr., Walter Sanger

Early Life

Pullman was the third of 10 children born to James and Emily Pullman in Brocton, New York. The family relocated to Albion, New York, in 1845 so that Pullman’s father, a carpenter, could work on the Erie Canal.

James Pullman's specialty was moving structures out of the way of the canal with jackscrews and another device he patented in 1841.

Move to Chicago

When James Pullman died in 1853, George Pullman took over the business. He won a contract with the state of New York the next year to move 20 buildings from the canal's path. In 1857, Pullman opened a similar business in Chicago, Illinois, where much help was needed in raising buildings above the Lake Michigan flood plain. Pullman’s company was one of several hired to lift multistory buildings and whole city blocks by four to six feet.

Ten years after he moved to Chicago, he married Harriett Sanger. They had four children: Florence, Harriett, and twins George Jr., and Walter Sanger.

Working on the Railroad

Pullman realized that new buildings with better foundations would reduce the city's need for his services and decided to go into manufacturing and leasing railroad cars. The railroad system was booming, and although the greatest need was for transporting raw materials and finished goods, he had a different idea. He frequently traveled by railroad in pursuit of business but found regular cars to be uncomfortable and dirty. The sleeping cars were just as unsatisfactory, with cramped beds and poor ventilation. He decided to focus on the passenger experience.

Partnering with Benjamin Field, a friend and former New York state senator, he decided to build a sleeper that was not just comfortable. He wanted luxury. He persuaded the Chicago, Alton, and St. Louis Railroad to let him convert two of its cars. The Pullman Sleepers debuted in August 1859 and were a roaring success, with reviewers comparing them to luxury steamboat cabins.

Pullman briefly succumbed to gold fever, relocating to Colorado and catering to miners before returning to Chicago in the 1860s. He devoted himself to making the sleepers even more luxurious.

A Better Sleeper

The first made-from-scratch Pullman—the “Pioneer,” developed with Field—debuted in 1865. It had folding upper berths and seat cushions that could be extended to make lower berths. The cars were expensive, but they gained national attention and increased demand when several of them were included in the train that took Abraham Lincoln’s body from Washington, D.C., back to Springfield, Illinois, following his assassination in 1865. (The slain president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, succeeded Pullman as president of the Pullman Co. after Pullman's death in 1897, serving until 1911.)

In 1867, Pullman and Field dissolved their partnership and Pullman became president of the new Pullman Palace Car Co. In 12 years the company was offering 464 cars for lease. The new company also manufactured and sold freight, passenger, refrigerator, street, and elevated cars.

As the railroad industry continued to develop and Pullman prospered, he paid $8 million in 1880 for construction of the town of Pullman, Illinois, on 3,000 acres adjacent to his factory west of Lake Calumet. It provided housing, shops, and other amenities for his company employees at all income levels.

Union Strike

Pullman, which eventually became a neighborhood of Chicago, was the site of a vicious labor strike beginning in May 1894. Over the previous nine months, the Pullman factory had reduced its workers' wages but did not lower the cost of living in its houses. Pullman workers joined labor organizer and American socialist leader Eugene Debs' American Railroad Union (ARU) in the spring of 1894 and shut down the factory with a strike on May 11.

When management refused to deal with the ARU, the union prompted a nationwide boycott of Pullman cars on June 21. Other groups within the ARU started sympathy strikes on behalf of the Pullman workers in an attempt to paralyze the nation's railroad industry. The U.S. Army was called into the dispute on July 3, and the arrival of soldiers sparked widespread violence and looting in Pullman and Chicago.

The strike unofficially ended four days later when Debs and other union leaders were jailed. The Pullman factory reopened in August and denied local union leaders an opportunity to return to their jobs.

Following the strike, the Pullman Co. continued to thrive. While his factory maintained production of railroad sleeping cars, Pullman also ran the company that built the elevated railway system in New York City.

Death

Pullman died of a heart attack on Oct. 19, 1897, at the age of 66. The bitter strike left Pullman reviled by the labor movement. So deep was the lingering animosity and fear that, to ward off vandalism or desecration of his body, Pullman was buried in a lead-lined coffin inside an elaborately reinforced, steel-and-concrete vault with walls that were 18 inches thick. Over this were laid steel rails placed at right angles to each other and bolted together. Everything was then covered in tons of concrete. The pit dug for the elaborate vault was the size of an average room.

Legacy

The Pullman Co. merged with the Standard Steel Car Co. in 1930 and became the Pullman-Standard Co. In 1982, the company built its last car for Amtrak, and soon afterward the company faded away. By 1987, the assets had been sold off.

Pullman transformed the railroad sleeping car from a smelly, cramped mess into rolling luxury, making overnight train travel more appealing to those who could afford it. He created an enormous business that made his name synonymous with a major component of the railroad industry.

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