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George M. Pullman

inventor of the railroad sleeping car

George Pullman

George Mortimer Pullman was born in Brockton, New York, on March 3, 1831. He quit school after the fourth grade to work in a general store owned by his great uncle. In 1845, his parents moved to Albion, New York, where his father got a job working as a carpenter on the Erie Canal. His father also established a business moving buildings out of the way as the canal was being dug, using a system of screwjacks and a machine he had patented in 1841. George quit his job at the general store in 1848 and joined his father's business. When his father died in 1853, George took over the business. In 1854, he secured a contract with the state of New York to move about 20 buildings so the canal could be widened.

In 1857, Pullman answered an advertisement calling for contractors to help raise Chicago buildings to help control flooding and enable the city to install a modern sewer system. Using the system devised by his father, Pullman, working in unison with several other contractors, helped raise the entire city an average of six feet.

Once Chicago had been raised, Pullman formed a partnership with Benjamin C. Field to build and operate railroad sleeping cars. The team secured a contract from the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad to convert two cars, but the venture failed to secure more than a modest profit. Field soon left the venture and assigned his interest to Pullman in exchange for future loans.

In 1859, Pullman decided to take advantage of the Pike's Peak Gold Rush and headed to Colorado. Rather than picking up a pick and shovel, however, he formed a partnership with James E. Lyon to operate a freight business and ore crushing mill. After dissolving the partnership with Lyon, Pullman formed a new partnership with Spafford C. Field, brother of former partner Benjamin Field. The team of Pullman and Field eventually acquired about 1,600 acres of land near the gold fields, upon which they platted Cold Spring Ranch. The ranch became a prominent base camp for gold miners, providing them with beds, supplies, meals, and drinks.

The Colorado gold fields eventually played out, and, in April 1865, Pullman returned to Chicago, where he revived his dream of developing a railroad sleeping car. On April 5, 1864, he was granted a patent for a railroad car with a folding upper berth. One year later he received a patent for special extensible seat cushions that could be converted into a lower sleeping berth. In 1867, he created the first hotel on wheels -- a sleeper car with attached kitchen and dining car.

On February 22, 1867, the Illinois Legislature granted a charter to the Pullman Palace Car Company, which soon became a leading manufacturer of railroad passenger cars. In 1869, Pullman bought out the Detroit Car and Manufacturing Company in order to consolidate all of his manufacturing operations into one facility. The factory was soon turning out five classes of high quality railroad cars -- sleeper, hotel, reclining room, parlor, and dining. In 1870, he bought out the Central Transportation Company, his largest competitor.

interior of a Pullman car, showing the ornate upholstery and other fittings
interior of Pullman car

By 1875 the Pullman Company had established a reputation for building some of the most elegant cars in the industry. Pullman refused to sell the cars, however. Instead, he leased his cars to the railroads, and then provided all auxiliary services necessary. Pullman cars were known for providing passengers with luxurious surroundings, combined with excellent personal service, complete with a retinue of recently-freed slaves who served as personal porters, valets, waiters, chambermaids, and entertainers.

a Pullman porter
a Pullman porter

In 1880, Pullman bought 4,000 acres near Lake Calumet, about 14 miles south of Chicago, upon which he built a new factory. Like many other manufacturing barons of his day, he also established a factory town, complete with housing, shopping areas, churches, theaters, parks, hotel, and library. The planned community became a leading attraction during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Pullman was praised by the national press for his benevolence and vision.

the town of Pullman
the town of Pullman

National praise aside, however, Pullman's town suffered under his authoritarian rule. It was one thing to require workers to pay rent in exchange for the "privilege" of living and working in the town, but residents found it difficult to accept Pullman's habit of sending company inspectors into their homes to check for cleanliness. In addition, Pullman prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings, and open discussion. None of the churches were ever used, because no approved denomination was willing to pay rent, and no other congregations were allowed.

When business began falling off in 1894, Pullman responded by cutting jobs, wages, and working hours, but refused to reduce rents or prices in the town. In response, the workers launched a massive strike, which at times became violent. The strike was finally broken up by federal troops sent in by President Grover Cleveland, over the objections of Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest its ownership in the town, which was then annexed into Chicago.

George Pullman died of a heart attack on October 19, 1897. The Pullman Company continued to build, own, and operate a massive fleet of sleeping cars until December 31, 1948, at which time ownership of the cars was transferred to the railroads on which they operated, while Pullman continued to provide operation and maintenance. This transfer was the result of a government anti-trust ruling, which required Pullman to separate its manufacturing and operations divisions and sell its fleet of cars. A decreasing need by the railroads for sleeping cars ultimately led to the Pullman Company ceasing operations, on December 31, 1968.

Historic Pullman Foundation
Pullman State Historic Site

Erie Canal
World's Columbian Exposition of 1893
Pullman Strike
President Grover Cleveland
John P. Altgeld

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The Robinson Library >> Economics >> Transportation and Communications >> Railroads and Rapid Transit Systems

This page was last updated on October 18, 2017.