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Pullman Car History


April 10, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Pullman2The Cumberland Valley Railroad introduced sleeping cars around 1838 (some sources say 1836). These early cars were primative, with three permanent levels of uncomfortable bunks and used only regionally. In 1857, Thomas Woodruff took the concept to New York, adding sleeping cars to the New York Central line, then to other railroads. Woodruff’s Central Transportation Company held most of the early contracts with 88 cars in service in 1866, his Silver Palace cars among them. By 1869, he had 119 cars on sixteen railroads. George Pullman began competing with Woodruff in 1859, initially using rebuilt day coaches. In 1865, Pullman began building sleeper cars the ground up. By 1870, the Pullman company took over Woodruff’s company.

George Pullman was born in 1831 and grew up traveling with his father. He hated the discomfort of train cars…the hard benches, lack of heat, poor ventilation, lugging his baggage when he changed trains, and staying in seedy hotels. Believing sleeper cars was the solution, he joined forces with Benjamin Field in 1859 and started rebulding day coaches. Seven years later, his brand new Pioneer car was launched. The car was longer, higher, and wider, forcing railroads to modify bridges and depot platforms to accommodate it. Still, the folding upper berths appealed. During the day, the car had coach seating. At night, the seats converted to berths by sliding cushions together. Upper berths folded down from the ceiling. The Pullman Palace Car Company was founded in 1867 and grew rapidly, controlling 90 percent of the business by 1900 with 3,258 cars in operation.

Though Pullman’s company grew to become the biggest sleeper car company in the United States, his Pioneer car almost bankrupted the company. To finance the expansion and create the Pioneer, Pullman moved to the gold town of Russell Gulch, near Central City, Colorado, where he operated a frieght business and general store. He prospered and returned East with $20,000. But the larger car was unpopular when initially introduced. Railroads did not want to make the alterations necessary to accommodate it. However, when the Pullman car was included in Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, the national publicity launched the success of the company.

When Presilincolndent Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Mrs. Lincoln decided to return his body to Springfield, Illinois for burial. An admirer of Pullman’s Pioneer, she decided to include it as part of the funeral train. Legend has it that station platforms were cut off, bridges elevated, and buildings moved to allow for the oversized car. No doubt adjustments did have to be made to accommodate the new style car on other lines but no documented evidence exists to support that actually occurred in this instance. In any case, the new car attracted much attention and Pullman’s role in history was secured.

An open vestibule car known as “The President’s Car” actually carried Lincoln’s body. It was built in Alexandria but never used because Lincoln felt it too ostentatious. Six other cars made up the train. The black and flag draped train left Washington on April 21 and traveled a circuitous route through state capitols and major cities for thirteen days. At Chicago, 125,000 people paid their respects before the train went on to Springfield. It arrived there on May 2, 1865 and Lincoln was interred.

Gene Glendinning, railroad researcher, writes: “Over time, legends surrounding Pullman’s Pioneer and the composition of the funeral train took life. One story declared that Pullman’s then most famous sleeper carried the president’s coffin. Government records and published recollections written by those who had been there confirm the President’s Car was the only carriage in which his remains were placed throughout the slow, meandering trip. Another myth declared that Mrs. Lincoln rode in the Pioneer with her two sons, Tad and Robert. In fact, Mary Lincoln was still in Washington as late as May 22 and only then left the capital; she had not accompanied the president’s remains. It is possible that Mrs. Lincoln was afforded use of the car later when she finally returned to Springfield, a fitting accommodation for the bereaved widow, but not as part of the funeral train itself.” (The Chicago & Alton Railroad; The Only Way)

One of the keys to the success of Pullman cars was the luxury. Along with sleeper cars, pullman5trains included a kitchen car which prepared fresh gourmet meals and a dining car in which to enjoy them. Men’s and women’s saloons, or drawing rooms, were both tastefully decorated with leather seats, electric lights, chandeliers and table lamps. Comfort features also included water closets, and heating and air conditioning. The cars were decorated in cherry with red plush upholstery for the seats in the sleeper cars. Wash stands had marble tops. Over the years, more wheels were added (doubled) to the cars to make the ride smoother. Sleeper cars had “sections” which each contained an upper and lower berth. The upper berth folded up during the day and the lower section converted to two facing seats.

pullman6Another added attraction of the Pullman car was the porter system. George Pullman insisted on development of a corps of porters who offered efficient and courteous service to all passengers as well as maintaining the spotless cleanliness of each car. The porters were employed by the Pullman company rather than the railroads. The set up the cars, greeted passengers, and helped them get settled. While moving, they also addressed passenger needs, monitored heating and air conditioning, converted the berths and made up bedding, cleaned, shined shoes, pressed suits, mailed letters, and delivered meals! At beginning of employment, all porters underwent 14 days of training and received a 127-page manual. In addition to porters, Pullman also employed conductors, who served as manager of all cars in the train. Food-service attendants and busboys completed the staff.

Most Pullman porters were African-American. Though the position was menial, it was considered a desirable one in that it offered better pay and more job-security than most positions available within the African-American community at the time. The Pullman company was the largest employer of African-Americans in the U.S. Most porters were referred to as “George” by travelers.

I’ll return to Pullman cars the week of April 18 on Facebook and in the April 24 blog. Next week, I’ll return to carousels, concentrating on Elitch Gardens’ very first carousel: Carousel No. 6, which is featured in a very special scene of Escaping Yesterday.


Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.



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