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Pullman Cars–Changes over Time

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April 24, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Most standard Pullman sleeper cars were open-section cars. A section referred to two facing seats which formed a lower berth at night and the drop-down upper berth above them. There were sections on each side of a center aisle. During the daytime, passengers sat on the comfortable sofa seats. At night, porters converted the seats into the lower berth by folding down the seats and rearranging cushions. The upper berth dropped down from above. Both berths had space to hang clothes and space for toiletries. Curtains provided privacy. The upper berth was the least expensive. If a passenger wished to purchase the entire section, they could pay extra to do so and keep the upper berth closed to increase headroom for the lower berth. A standard sleeper car contained several open sections (with the exact number changing over time) and a toilet room. Eventually, washrooms, drawing rooms, and private sleeping areas would be added.

The earliest Pullman cars (1859) were rebuilt day coaches. Roofs were low, preventing tall men from standing erect, seats were adamantine, and lighting was provided by candles. Two small wood-burning stoves provided heat. The cars had a tiny toilet room at one end and a wash-basin in the open. There were ten upper and ten lower berths with mattresses but no sheets. In 1863, further modifications were made. These cars had 14 sections and a stateroom at each end. During the day, it looked like a parlor car with sofas along each side. At night, the sofas slid out and folded into beds and upper berths were lowered. Damask curtains closed the berths along the 36-inch aisle and high quality linens were now provided.

Pullman began building cars from the ground up in 1865. This car was longer, higher, and wider. Upper berths could now be completely folded up during the day. A hot-air furnace system ran under the floor and a raised upper deck contained ventilation windows. This car had two closed compartments at each end (which were walled off and closed with sliding doors), eight open sections, and a spacious washroom. The interior was more upscale with pile carpeting, brass fixtures, and plush upholstery. Beds were comfortable and quality linens. Candles still provided lighting. Pullman introduced the first dining car in 1868, built at a cost of $20,000. The dining car could seat 48 and was modeled after fine restaurants with linens, crystal, silver, and china. Two cooks prepared gourmet meals. By 1872, drawing room and “hotel” cars had also been added.

Comfort improvements continued. In 1876, sleeping cars increased in length to 70 feet. Candles were replaced with oil lamps and air brakes were added. Hot water heating replaced stoves. Running water was supplied by an overhead tank and polished walnut paneling finished the interior. In 1887, Pullman added vestibules between cars which allowed passengers to avoid the elements when moving between cars. At first, the vestibule was a narrow passage but it was later widened to full car width. Cars now contained 12 open sections (six per side), a drawing room, a smoking room, toilet, and washroom. The seats were finished in mahogany with carvings and ornamentation, rich carpeting and upholstery. Parlor cars were added to increase comfort and social space. By 1891, cars were 75 feet long and Pintsch gas lighting was standard (some cars even had electric lights). Interior décor was updated and an air-pressure water supply system was added.

First-class cars were introduced around the turn of the century and were produced by a variety of companies. All steel construction began to replace wood in 1907. Many railroads also began marketing passenger travel to the wealthier classes around this time. Union Pacific began running its Los Angeles Limited in 1905, calling it “a palatial train for particular people.” Great Northern’s B&S Oriental Limited began running the same year. The Oriental initially had 14 first-class coaches, seating 86 passengers and nine 14-section tourist-class sleeper cars. The sleepers had gender-specific restrooms, small cooking stoves and coal heaters. First-class sleepers were referred to as “Palace Sleepers” and featured drawing rooms, called “staterooms.” The 1906 Palace Sleepers contained 12 sections and one Stateroom. The new Palace Sleepers were longer, more ornate, and had plusher carpeting and upholstery. In addition, the Oriental’s Diners were also larger, seating 30 instead of 24. Their gilt mirrors, thick carpets, and hand-carved oak paneling were highlighted by ornate lighting with the entire effect that of an English pub. Handsome cabinetry and overhead beams finished the look. Each table held a crystal vase with fresh-cut flowers. The Observation car replaced the buffet-lounge car. Each Observation car had a drawing room, four compartments, a card room, a small buffet, a 15-sear observation room, and an open platform area. The cars were ornately decorated with easy chairs and writing desks and intended for first-class passenger relaxation. The wide windows offered great views and each area of the car was decorated in its own color scheme with complementing polished wood trim. Tea was served every afternoon at four.

By 1930, passenger trains became less palatial and more practical. Sleeping cars offered more privacy with separate rooms for travel and sleep. The Drawing Room was redesigned from a social area for all passengers to a private section for families. The drawing room was spacious, occupying the full width of the train car. It had a living area with a wide sofa, two movable lounge chairs, and a wardrobe. At night, furnishings converted to two lower beds and an upper drop-down berth. The Bedroom provided private living space for two passengers with space for clothing. At night, it converted to two full-length beds with a drop-down berth. The Roomette was designed for single travelers and offered sofa seating, storage space and conversion to a bed in addition to a private toilet. The Compartment could accommodate four travelers. It featured a sofa and a lounge chair, storage, and a private toilet. At night, it converted to two full-length beds and an upper berth. It was larger than a bedroom but not as large as a drawing room. The Double Bedroom offered suite-style accommodations with private sleeping and living space for two. The two areas were separated by a partition that could be opened during the day. Each area had a large bed which converted to sitting space during the day as well as private toilets and storage space.

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We’ll return to Elitch Gardens itself next week, with a discussion of the expansion of the park from circa 1900 to 1960. 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 (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).

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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