RISING FROM THE RAILS
Out of Bondage, All Aboard
HE WAS A black man in a white jacket and sable hat. Having stepped out of the cotton fields barely two years before, he now was stepping onto one of the locomotives that had long symbolized freedom to slavehands across America. He lit candles that illuminated the passenger carriage, stoked the pot-bellied Baker Heater, and turned down hinged berths that magically transformed the day coach into an overnight compartment. He was part chambermaid, part valet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, tempering tempers, and performing other tasks that won tips and made him indispensable to the wealthy white travelers who snapped their fingers in the air when they needed him. It was the only real traveling he would ever do.
That much is known about the first porter to work on George Mortimer Pullman's railroad sleeping cars. What is not known is his name, age, birthplace, date of employment, or just about anything else about him. Historians will say the reason is that a fire in Chicago destroyed the early archives of the Pullman Company. But, curiously, it didn't destroy the names of those first two primitive Pullman cars back in 1859, remodeled day coaches 9 and 19 of the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, or the provenance of the first three paying passengers, all from Bloomington, Illinois. Or even the name of the original conductor, Jonathan L. Barnes, who like all conductors was white and whose narrative is preserved in telling detail.
The pioneering porter, in fact, was not expected to have human proportions at all, certainly none worthy of documenting. He was aphantom assistant who did not merit the dignity of a name or identity of any sort. That is precisely why George Pullman hired him. He was an ex-slave who embodied servility more than humanity, an ever-obliging manservant with an ever-present smile who was there when a jacket needed dusting or a child tending or a beverage refreshing. Few inquired where he came from or wanted to hear about his struggle. In his very anonymity lay his value.
And so it was that the polished passengers who rode the plush velvet-appointed night coaches over the first half century of Pullman Palace Car service summoned him with a simple "porter." The less polite hailed him with "boy" or, more often, "George." The latter appellation was born in the practice of slaves being named after slavemasters, in this case porters being seen as servants of George Pullman. It stuck because it was repeated instinctively by successive generations of passengers, especially those below the Mason-Dixon Line, and by caricaturists, comedians, and newspaper columnists. If the more socially conscious among riders perceived the grim irony of the moniker, they did not say so publicly. They certainly did not object. The only ones who protested, at first, were white men named George. They were sufficiently annoyed by the slight, or more probably amused, that they founded the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George, SPCSCPG for short, which eventually claimed thirty-one thousand members, including England's King George V, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, George M. Cohan, and Georges Clemenceau of France.1
Whether George Pullman knew his passengers were calling his porters "George" is unclear. That he would not have cared is certain. It was not that he was mean, or more coldhearted to black employees than to white. He believed he owed workers nothing more than a job, and when business slackened, even that was not ironclad. He hired more Negroes than any businessman in America, giving them a monopoly on the profession of Pullman porter and a chance to enter the cherished middle class. He did it not out of sentimentality, of which he had none, but because it made business sense. They came cheap, and men used to slave labor could becompelled to do whatever work they were asked, for as many hours as told.
There was another reason George hired only Negroes, one that had to do with the social separation he thought was vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters. Women, after all, were disrobing on the other side of a thin curtain. Riders were stumbling into bed drunk, slinking into compartments of someone other than their spouse, tumbling out of upper berths. Such compromised postures called for a porter whom passengers could regard as part of the furnishings rather than a mortal with likes, dislikes, and a memory. It had to be someone they knew they would never encounter outside the closed capsule of the sleeping car, someone who inhabited a different reality. It must be a Negro.
Recruiters started signing them up shortly after George launched his fleet of sleeping cars. The Pullman Company built the sleepers and rented them to the railroads, complete with everything from fine linen and sweet-smelling soap to a service staff whose centerpiece was the porter. George's first choice for that job was Negroes from the old slave states. The blacker the better, passengers told him. If some riders were rude in return, so be it. That was outside his control and concern.
All of which was okay with most porters, at least at the beginning. They were, as George suspected, grateful for a steady salary, for being out of shackles and able to hurtle across the landscape in his luxurious sleeping carriages. They cherished the job and stayed a lifetime, with many passing it down to sons and grandsons. Work on the train was rigid and hierarchical, but they were accustomed to structure. No hierarchy could be more confining or cruel than that of slave and slavemaster. Little by little, however, some porters asked for more. They wanted the human dimension that slavery had taken away and without which they could not feel fully free. They needed a heritage and ancestors worth knowing. If the Pullman Company could not or would not tell them who their patriarch was, that first porter, they would frame their own gilded image.
They called him Daddy Joe. He was a Bunyanesque figure tallenough to pull down upper berths on either side of the aisle at the same time, agile enough to prepare uppers and lowers simultaneously, and so appreciated by riders that his pockets were weighed down with silver and gold. Once, when marauding redskins besieged his Central Pacific train at a water stop, Joe climbed atop the sleeper and spoke to the Indians in their own idiom, charming the chiefs into accepting a pile of Pullman blankets in place of passenger scalps. Another time he convinced passengers panicked by a rising river to stay seated 'til floodwaters subsided. Daddy Joe may or may not have been real, but the way porters told and retold his stories it was clear he reflected their aspirations as well as their need to know whence they came.2
GEORGE PULLMAN KNEW his own roots enough to know they did not matter. Like most true believing entrepreneurs in the making, he saw history as mere curiosity, preordaining nothing. He was determined to become a player in the new financial and political orders, an age defined by the iron horse, shrinking frontiers, and the war brewing between the states. Industry was eclipsing the old land-based economy. Men who grasped those trends, men like George Pullman, were free to shape their future and, when needed, reshape their past. They were self-made.
The third of ten children, George set out in 1859 from the village of Albion in upstate New York to seek his fortune in Chicago, a city, like him, about to bloom. He was nearly twenty-nine, which was old for a pioneer and for a bachelor. Standing just over six feet, he had dusky hair he hoped would stay thick and glossy through regular application of a hair invigorator. His beard then had none of the fullness, or gray, that would become his trademarks, and in the style of the day it did not include a mustache. Just as he was not quite handsome, so his three decades in New York testified more to what he could not do than could. He was less drawn to God than two brothers who became Universalist ministers, less capable a craftsman than his father and other brothers despite having grown upwith a carving knife and wood block by his side. He served long enough as apprentice in his father's cabinetmaking and building-moving businesses to learn both, and know he loved neither. That might explain why, after calling himself a cabinetmaker in the 1850 U.S. Census, in 1855 he told New York census takers that his occupation was "gentleman." Gentleman or not, when his father died two years earlier George, just twenty-two, had taken over as breadwinner for his mother and youngest siblings, a role he dutifully performed for seven years.
It felt liberating leaving Albion, a town of three thousand known for its snap beans and sandstone. He took with him more than he realized. Having experienced the grind of manual labor at his uncle's general store, then the family furniture shop, George decided he preferred the hours afterward when he could scrub clean, then promenade in high top hat and long-tailed coat. He had watched the newly widened Erie Canal fuel commerce in shorefront communities like his, but realized that the more agile railroad was displacing inland waterways as the preferred mode for carrying cargo and people. Most of all, he had learned that while making a sound product was important, even more critical to the riches he sought was a proficiency in peddling that product.
He already had cashed in on that understanding by convincing the owners of Chicago's Matteson House that, though he may have been from upcountry New York, he was the man most qualified to lift their hotel the eight feet needed to install a sewer system. George had learned a novel technique for moving buildings from Lewis Pullman, his father, who nearly twenty years before had patented a device to roll huge edifices away from the banks of the Erie so the canal could be broadened to handle bigger barges. In Chicago's case the commercial district had been built on poorly drained lowlands. The challenge was to elevate downtown buildings above the level of Lake Michigan, letting workers fill in muddy streets and flooded cellars with sand and concrete, then add sewers and lay gas and water pipes.
George and his minions were glad to oblige. They began with the Matteson House, which stood on the priciest section of downtownand was the largest building ever raised in Chicago. Next they lifted an entire block of clothing stores and print shops, banks and bookbinderies. The process was artful: workmen dug underneath the existing foundations to insert timbers and blocks, set in place six thousand jackscrews, then, at the sound of George's whistle, each of six hundred laborers gave their screws a quarter turn. Pilings under the buildings were reinforced daily to fill the widening gap; within five days, thirty-five thousand tons of buildings had been lifted nearly five feet, all without breaking a pane of glass, interrupting a shopper, or tipping a teacup. Chicago, which thirty years earlier had been a stinking swamp of wild onions, was getting the solid foundation a world-class city required. And George was proving to himself and anyone watching that he could bring off what seemed like the most fanciful of public works projects--levitating, then reconstructing, a major slice of downtown Chicago.3
His next fantasy was even more improbable: putting a hotel on wheels.
The notion of a railroad car comfortable enough to let passengers sleep seems unremarkable from today's perspective, but at the time it was revolutionary. The earliest version of what might be called a train hit the tracks in the middle of the sixteenth century, when English mine owners realized that horse-drawn carts could be moved more easily along wooden rails than rutted roads. The first steam locomotive was tested in Britain in 1804. In 1827, a rudimentary railway was opened in America to cart granite the four miles from a quarry in Quincy to the Boston site where workmen were erecting a monument to the Battle of Bunker Hill. It wasn't until 1825--three centuries after British miners set up their pseudorailroad--that the public there began riding trains, and it took six more years to launch the first fully equipped, steam-powered passenger service in America.
The passengers rode, but they seldom rested. "Without a proper place to stow away one's hat, with no convenience even to repose the head or back except to the ordinary height of a chair, with a current of cold air continually streaming in and rendered necessary by the sulphurous heat of the furnace, and with the constant slamming ofthe doors at either end of the car as the conductor goes in or out, or some weary passenger steps onto the platform to have a smoke, the passenger must indeed be dead beat who can sleep or even doze in a railroad car," one rider recalled of a night trip to Wheeling, West Virginia. 4 Another chronicler said the narrow, stiff-backed seats made travel so uncomfortable during the early years of steam that "it is difficult to understand how any passenger could have fallen asleep amid the horrors of the journey. Nevertheless, many travelers--fatalistic, steel-nerved, or exhausted--did indeed succumb to a sort of limp, half-conscious hibernation. Their heads lolled sideways on the wooden benches, their hats fell off, their mouths drooped open, and their eyes closed on the waking nightmare."5
That nightmare included the havoc those first locomotives left in their wake. A British traveler traversing the United States in 1840 kept a journal of his uneasy experience. Feeling a "violent jolt, accompanied by a loud crash" as his train pulled past a crossing, he asked the engineer and conductor what had happened. "'Well, it was in going over a chaise and horse,' replied one of them, very coolly. 'There was no one in the chaise?' asked I, anxiously. 'Oh, yes, there were two ladies.' 'Were they thrown out?' 'I guess they were, and pretty well smashed, too.' 'Good God! And why didn't you stop the train? Can't you send back to know what state they're in?' 'Well, mister, I reckon they're in the State of Delaware; but you'd better jump into the steamer there, or you're likely to lose your passage.'" The man caught his steamer but later read that one lady had been killed, the other badly wounded, the horse "smashed," and the chaise broken to pieces.6
Seeking to soften such bad dreams, or at least let riders sleep through them, officers of Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley Railroad in 1838 launched regular sleeping car service for the fifty miles between Harrisburg and Chambersburg. Calling those primitive cars sleepers did not make them such. Beds typically consisted of bunks stacked three high, with cast-iron platforms and no sheets. There was no fresh air either, and about as much privacy as in an army barracks. Wooden floors creaked, windows rattled, wood-burningstoves roasted passengers who sat too close and froze those who kept their distance, and tallow candles offered up noxious fumes and little illumination. Any washing had to be done in a narrow basin at one end of the coach. Eating was on the run during station stops. A row of brass spittoons lined the wall with signs imploring, "Gentlemen Are Requested Not to Spit on the Stove," but the floors flowed with saliva and tobacco juice. Innovations over the next twenty years, from swivel couches to cane-bottomed berths, were insufficient to induce grumbling men to shed pants or even muddy boots as they bunked down for the night. Or to entice any but the bravest women to venture in at all. Most who did remained fully clothed, clutching hatpins through the night to repel wayward men.
"We all 'retired' at ten o'clock, with a fair allowance of open windows and virtuous resolutions," Horace Greeley, America's most celebrated journalist, recalled in a memoir of his trip on an Erie Line sleeper in the summer of 1859. "But the rain poured, the night was chill and damp; and soon every orifice for the admission of external air, save the two or three humbug ventilators overhead, was shut, and a mephitic atmosphere produced ... . After gasping a while, like a netted fish on a hot sandbank, I rose to enter my solemn protest against all sleeping-cars not provided with abundant and indefeasible means of ventilation." Not easily deterred, Greeley tried another sleeper two nights later, this one on the Michigan Southern. The air grew "absolutely poisonous" after just twenty minutes, he reported. "The builders of cars have no right to be ignorant of the laws of life with which they tamper; and two or three presentments by Grand Juries of the makers of unventilated cars, especially sleeping-cars, as guilty of manslaughter, would exert a most salutary influence. I commend this public duty to the immediate consideration of jurors and prosecutors."7
Greeley was not the only one horrified by the insufficiency of ventilation, space, or anything else likely to induce sleep on early trains. George Pullman rode often enough in and around New York in the mid-1850s to become conversant in the discomforts. One trip in particular stuck in his mind, and his company's lore. It spannedjust fifty-eight miles, between Buffalo and Westfield, where his mother's family lived, and the train included one of the new sleepers. Pullman paid the extra dollar for a berth, intending merely to examine the accommodations, not test them. What he found when he did were ceilings so low a long-legged man like him had to stoop, ventilation so lacking it was difficult to draw a breath, and bedding so uninviting he felt obliged to keep on his pants and shoes. As for his triple-tiered bunk, he slept not a wink.
While the trip to Westfield might have left fellow passengers cranky and tired, George took it as a challenge, dreaming of a sleeping car where passengers actually could sleep. The fact that others shared that vision, but had not seen it through, he took as his opportunity as he headed to Chicago in the spring of 1859. He already had discussed railroad sleeping cars with his friend and neighbor in Albion, the state senator Benjamin C. Field. Once in Chicago, George found his building-moving business neither reliable enough to ensure his prosperity nor entrepreneurial enough to engage his energies.
Pullman and Field soon convinced the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad to let them convert two old passenger carriages into sleepers, known simply as Numbers 9 and 19. The cars, which cost two thousand dollars to remake and went into service the night of September 1, 1859, became part of railroad history partly because they were George's first. They also introduced a magnificently clever upper berth whose sleight-of-hand construction allowed it to be closed and lifted to the ceiling during daylight, when it stored the mattress and blanket, then dropped halfway to the floor at night. Heat came from box stoves, light from candles, and small toilet rooms with tin washbasins were situated at either end of the car. There were no sheets to start with. The nightly fare was fifty cents for the upper berth, one dollar for the lower, and passengers had to be instructed to remove their boots and spurs before climbing into bed. One early rider--a lanky lawyer with whiskers from Springfield named Abraham Lincoln--was intrigued by the conveyance and, after quizzing George on its features, curled himself into an upper berth for the night.
George was captivated by the sleeping car business that would define his career and life, and transform the industry, but these crude cars serving frontier settlements represented more a dipping of toes than diving in full body. Sleeping car titans like Theodore T. Woodruff and Webster T. Wagner had tied up the profitable eastern routes, not to mention patents on innovations. George was feeling the burden of supporting his mother back in New York, along with younger sisters and brothers. So he set out again in the summer of 1860, this time to the goldfields of Colorado for about three years. It was long enough to earn a small fortune by supplying miners with provisions, wagons to carry them, and other merchandise. That money, along with new expertise in marketing, let him return to Chicago and resume his passion to revolutionize overnight train travel.
The timing was perfect. With the Civil War entering its decisive stage, the nation was about to be stitched back together. Railroads had proved themselves during battle, moving hundreds of thousands of troops to the front, and work was beginning on a Pacific line that would be the last link in a transcontinental network. The crazy quilt of track widths on different railways was about to be replaced by a standard gauge that would let a car pass continuously from New York to Chicago, and would make trains the only sensible way of traversing the country. Passengers were demanding more comfortable accommodations. And Chicago, America's crossroads city, was the focal point of the ferment, with George having just the right contacts, finances, and know-how to cash in.
The immediate result was the Pioneer, the planet's most celebrated sleeping car. It was George's love child. He set up the workshop where it was built, hired the laborers, purchased the raw materials, and kept a father's prideful watch over the installation of every shag of Brussels carpeting, French plate mirror, ceiling mural, marble washbasin, and carefully encased upper berth. Gone were the flea-ridden, paper-thin cushions of old, replaced by mattresses stuffed with soft animal hair, sheets of silky linen, and enough plush blankets to warm the Pioneer's fifty-two passengers. Heaters were hidden under the floor. Windows in the clerestory roof ensured endless freshair. An engineer warned that his scheme was too ambitious, that "there isn't space to fit your idea." George remained resolute: "Then make space to fit my idea."8 Eking out space and implementing all those ideas cost a whopping $20, 178. 14, four times as much as a conventional sleeper. But the Pioneer was anything but conventional. It was the most opulent overnight train car ever constructed, a palace on wheels. It nullified night and blurred the separation between destinations. It marked a watershed not just in the history of railroading but in the history of travel and, thus, in the history of America.
Or so said George as he recited the tale over the next thirty years. The sleeper that emerged from his Chicago shed in the spring of 1865 was a triumph, but his crescendo of ballyhoo made it difficult to distinguish axiom from embellishment. He originally referred to his creation simply as "Car A," suggesting the modesty of his enterprise and the expectation that he would build fewer cars than there were letters of the alphabet. Its christening as Pioneer came later, when George and others were cementing its image as a trailblazer and building an empire with so many sleepers that it would have taken nearly four hundred alphabets to name them all. It was sumptuous, but so were sleeping cars built back then by Wagner and Woodruff, Eli Wheeler, Edward Collings Knight, and Colonel William D'Alton Mann. George's raised roofs and sixteen-wheel trucks were different only in degree. Ditto for his hinged upper berths, which had been used thirty years earlier in the cars that Richard Imlay designed for the Cumberland Valley Railroad. Even the Pioneer's price tag required an asterisk: it was many times what other first-class sleepers cost, but that was mainly the result of Civil War inflation that had nearly tripled the price of railroad equipment.9
The truth is that George was not the originator of the sleeping car, nor even its most inventive interpreter. What he was was sharper and shrewder than his nearly three dozen rivals, building more sleepers than they did, standardizing them, and striking lucrative deals with rail lines to lease his cars and crews. He bought out competitors who were open to wooing and busted the rest. He knew the public wanted overnight trains that were not just snug but luxurious,and gave them the first topflight dining service on a train, the first Pintsch gaslights from Europe, and the first sleepers to deliver precisely the same fluff of the pillow, fold in linen, and bouquet in wine regardless of which railroad happened to be hauling their Pullman Palace Car. When being first was not possible, George insisted on being best, and he usually was. The rich were used to being pampered, and appreciated a train with the amenities they had at home and on their yachts. The middle class loved feeling rich.
So sure was George that the public would pay for that indulgence that he put it to the test, running his elegant cars with their two-dollar tariff side by side on a Michigan Central line with older, drabber sleepers costing just a dollar and a half. The decision came instantly. "Not only did the patrons of the road utterly refuse to look at the old cars so long as any two-dollar berths were available, but those who were crowded out of the Pullman complained so loudly at being compelled to put up with dollar-and-a-half berths, that within six weeks the cheap cars were taken off altogether," wrote the rail historian Charles Frederick Carter. "Instead of driving traffic away, the more expensive palace cars drew travel from the other roads, so that competing lines were forced to make terms with Pullman."10
George also grasped the importance of the as-yet-unnamed profession of public relations, masterfully wielding its tools of spin and puffery. He escorted visiting kings and dukes on his personal car and added "palace" to his company name, knowing royalty was the vogue in those Victorian days. He unveiled each new feature on his sleepers as a breakthrough, no matter how minor or borrowed. And never did he fret about vainglory, as he showed in 1870 while escorting Mayor Alvah Crocker and assorted nabobs out of Boston on the first chartered transcontinental trip and the first train composed entirely of Pullman cars. The baggage compartment was fitted with a printing press used to publish a dozen editions of a self-congratulatory journal. One issued a prayer for "no delay in placing the elegant and homelike [Pullman] carriages upon the principal routes in the New England States." Then there was this song from George's press agent: "Hurrah for a ride without jostle or jar! Hurrahfor a life on the iron bar! Hurrah for a ride in a Pullman car! Vive la compagnie."11
Whatever the Boston Brahmins thought, stunts like those did impress a Scottish-born immigrant who arrived in America at age thirteen and went to work as a bobbin boy in a Pennsylvania cotton mill. George Pullman "was one of those rare characters who can see the drift of things, and was always to be found, so to speak, swimming in the main current where movement was the fastest," wrote Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie saw in George not just a reflection of himself but of their Gilded Age. It was a time for speculating in stocks and erecting monopolies. Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Jerome Hill, and John Insley Blair were masters of the railroad. Carnegie was the man who mattered in steel. And in that era of the robber baron and Texas-sized tycoon, the only name history would remember when it came to overnight travel was that of the young man from Albion. So enchanted was Carnegie by the palace car prince that he went from being George's arch-competitor to his partner and the Pullman Company's biggest stockholder.12
George's greatest exercise of wile, of reshaping reality in a way that would have wowed the circus mandarin Phineas Taylor Barnum as it did Andrew Carnegie, centered once again on the Pioneer. The story, as Pullman executives told it, was that the acclaimed sleeper had been built a foot wider than any contemporary car and two and a half feet higher, which let it accommodate its hinged upper berth yet meant it could not fit onto railway bridges and under station platforms. Critics dubbed the costly colossus "The folly of the Pike's Peak lunatic," a reference to George's hiatus in Colorado, and the carriage gathered cobwebs in a Chicago storage barn. But George was not worried, so confident was he that the railroads would embrace his novel creation. Luck--along with the Lincolns--proved him right.
His good fortune began shortly after John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in April 1865. Organizers of the Lincoln funeral train decided the Pioneer was just the vehicle worthy of bearing the president's body the last leg from Chicago to Springfield,Illinois, where he would be buried. The Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, anxious to oblige, dispatched an army of workers to widen viaducts and whittle away platforms, completing in two days a project that otherwise might have taken a year. The result: on May 2, 1865, the Pioneer and the rest of the train passed in grand procession to Springfield. The Pioneer's presence in the Lincoln funeral cortege, and the railroad's Herculean efforts to make it possible, generated nationwide publicity for the sleeper and gave a huge psychological boost to George. It also got him the railway clearances he needed, on the Chicago & Alton, then on other lines across the United States and Canada.
The narrative became more majestic with each recounting, and it was told repeatedly over subsequent generations in newspapers, magazines, and one railroad treatise after another. One version centered on Mary Todd Lincoln, the president's widow, who spent twelve days and nights escorting her husband's corpse on its circuitous route from Washington. After witnessing four thousand mourners an hour file by the open casket, while thirty-six young women representing the thirty-six states offered up tributes, Mrs. Lincoln finally collapsed upon reaching Chicago. She begged to be taken to Springfield ahead of the funeral train, at which point George volunteered his sleeper and a single engine whisked it and the former First Lady home.13 Another rendering picks up on the Lincoln family's long fascination with sleeping cars--from Abe's use of them during his precedent-setting whistle-stop campaign for president against Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and on the way to his inauguration, to Mary Todd's supposed enchantment with the Pioneer when she got a peek months before her husband's death. According to this version, it was she who suggested the Pioneer for the sad trip from Chicago to Springfield, and rather than the sleeper chugging ahead of the funeral procession, it was part of it, with a pilot train clearing the way and the engine bell tolling at every station.14
All those renditions shared one more thing: not quite fitting the facts. Following her husband's death, Mrs. Lincoln is known to have ensconced herself in the White House, not emerging for thirty-eightdays and missing all the obsequies. Newspapers nationwide chronicled every detail of the funeral cortege, including the inclusion of more than one Pullman sleeper, but none mentioned pruned platforms or elevated arches, which would have been among the grandest construction feats of all times. And no press account of the Pioneer's maiden voyage said a word about its exaggerated proportions. The first published reference to the Pioneer as too thick and tall came twenty-three years after President Lincoln's demise, in a Boston Daily Globe account attributed to J. W. Stockton, an assistant superintendent of the Pullman Company. Several months later Scribner's Magazine ran a similar story penned by a Pullman vice president. A third telling of the tale appeared in an official history of the company published in 1917; the last came fifty-two years later, in the Pullman Company's final annual report.15
What really happened? George did provide sleepers for the funeral procession to Springfield, although it is unclear whether the Pioneer was among them. It is pretty certain that the Pioneer was neither as fat nor as statuesque as claimed. Pullman sleepers probably were invited to join the cortege because of George's ties to Colonel James H. Bowen, who was in charge of funeral arrangements in Chicago and the president of Chicago's Third National Bank, where George was a director and, later, the largest depositor. Over the years Pullman officials must have thought the real story pallid, and potentially embarrassing, so they applied a bit of luster--linking their firm's early history to the martyred president, then painting their founder as a man so daring he defied the very scale of the railroads. It worked, for more than a century, as their version was repeated and even varnished by reporters and authors. "It made a better story" the way Pullman executives told it, concluded Charles Long, a railroad historian who unspun that embroidery in the spring of 2002, 137 years after the fact.16
What part did George Pullman play in any hyperbole? Stockton said he got his story straight from the Pullman president. So did the author of the "On the Tip of the Tongue" column in the New York Press, who wrote about the Pullman link to the Lincoln funeral trainin December 1897, two months after George's death. This unnamed columnist recalled that, a few years earlier, he was part of a small party that rode with George Pullman in his private car. After dinner, over cigars and coffee, George regaled his guests with the story of how he had built a sleeper "so broad and high that it couldn't run a mile on any road without smashing everything along the line." Then came President Lincoln's assassination, and "the officials of the Vandalia road, over whose line the party was to enter Chicago, were anxious to make a display and impress the Eastern men. They borrowed my car, turned out all their wrecking trains, worked day and night pulling up platforms and widening bridges and cuts, and in two days had things in such shape that the car could run safely from one end of the road to the other. It did duty as the funeral car, and its description was published throughout the country."17
One heroic link was hardly enough. "The war came to a close, and General Grant, the conquering hero, came Westward on a triumphal tour," George told the columnist. "The Michigan Central had to have my car. Again the wrecking gangs did their work, making straight the road to Detroit for my sleeper. So it happened that what was once spoken of as 'the folly of the Pike's Peak lunatic' became the car of state, observed of all observers, and without effort of my own the value and importance of my invention became established among railroad men and known to the general public."18
Even without the added romance, George already had in place by the late 1860s nearly all the elements to make his sleepers the "observed of all observers" and crown him the titan of overnight train travel. Dozens of overstuffed sleeping cars were on track, with beautifully grained black walnut interiors, berths carefully concealed by painted screens and royal blue curtains, double windows for enhanced ventilation, and all the other flares he knew would make Pullman stand for luxury. He had secured a charter for Pullman's Palace Car Company, along with $100,000 in financing, and secured for himself the posts of president and general manager. His former partner Benjamin Field was retired now, and a wealthier and more influential Field, department store baron Marshall, hadbecome an investor and confidant. In 1867 George introduced the first hotel car, the President, a sleeper with an attached kitchen, wine cellar, and scullery. It offered seatside service of sugar-cured ham, Welsh rarebit, and 131 other culinary offerings that for the first time made female passengers feel at home. A year later he inaugurated the Delmonico, the world's first railcar dedicated exclusively to supping and a worthy namesake to one of Manhattan's finest eateries.
Trains offering manna worth savoring were almost as revolutionary as those providing the possibility of sleep. Before the President and Delmonico came on the scene, culinary options were but two: a shoebox lunch packed at home or purchased trackside, and a railroad eating house where a mere twenty minutes were allotted to digest fare that typically included bitter coffee brewed the previous week, eggs fried in rancid grease and stored in limed water to preserve their color, and biscuits so leaden they were dubbed "sinkers."19 "The bell rings for departure," one traveler wrote of such early-era refreshment rooms, and "in they all hurry with their hands and mouths full, and off they go again until the next stopping-place induces them to relieve the monotony of the journey by masticating without being hungry."20 There were exceptions, most notably the Santa Fe Line's Harvey Houses, where conductors wired ahead to fire up the fare and "Harvey Girls" greeted passengers with mouth-watering steaks and chops. In general, however, dining cars represented the long-awaited last relish that made Pullman trains, in the words of a later admirer, "the most sumptuously upholstered land-faring in the history of human movement."21
But George was a realist. He knew that while luxury accommodations were critical to his appeal, even more essential was service. Being treated like royalty was something passengers would remember long after they had grown blase about majestic furnishings and appetizing edibles. Service was the way to get railroads to give up their own overnight trains and give in to George's sine qua non that they lease not just his sleeping cars but Pullman staff as well. The Pullman division that ran sleepers would prove considerably more profitable than the manufacturing one throughout the 1800s, andGeorge knew from the start that service had to be the gospel to keep profits coming in and customers coming back.
All of which begged this question for him in 1867: where could he find a single worker willing and able to act as hotelier and waiter, chambermaid, butler, electrician, entertainer, and all the other things required for his five-star rolling hotels?
ABRAHAM LINCOLN HAD the answer, this time for real. In 1863 the president began the process of liberating slaves by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, although it could not deliver on its promise since it covered only states at war with Lincoln's Union. The South's surrender in April 1865 signaled the end of slavery, even if Lincoln would not live long enough to savor it. The formal and final abolition took another eight months until, in December 1865, the last state ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It was a fantastic moment. Suddenly 4 million Negroes were out of bondage and able to taste their first freedoms. They could work where they chose at whatever wage they could negotiate. They could live anywhere, travel everywhere, and be masters of their own homes and universe. Then reality set in. Fewer than one in ten ex-slaves could write their name. Fewer still were able to read a labor contract. They had no money to buy land, no skills beyond those learned in the fields or plantation house, no experience overseeing even their own lives. General William Tecumseh Sherman had promised Negroes who joined his triumphal March to the Sea "forty acres and a mule"; like other promises from the federal government, it proved ephemeral, and nearly all who got land had to give it back. Politics was in the slippery hands of that motley collection of Yankee adventurers and reformers contemptuously referred to as carpetbaggers, along with their scalawag fellow travelers from the secessionist states. As for those who had wielded power in the old Confederacy, they were intent on reinventing the realm in its old image.
Their cry of "come home" was aimed at rallying southern whiteswho felt aggrieved by everything from their wartime defeat to their loss of racial dominance and the high taxes imposed to pay for Reconstruction. They lashed out at Negroes, tearing down as many of the new freedoms as they could, including even the liberty to learn to read and write. The Fourteenth Amendment's due-process protections were undermined by a series of "Black Codes" that authorized unemployed Negro adults to be hired out as forced labor, unattended Negro children to be bound over to white employers, and other opportunities for Negroes to be severely curtailed. It is true that freed slaves could no longer be bought or sold, which was huge progress. Their marriages were legally recognized, they were able to organize their own churches and hold revival meetings, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave them the right to vote. But again, rebel reality trumped even the U.S. Constitution as Mississippi disenfranchised Negroes in 1890, followed by South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Oklahoma. Even as Congress was laboring to ensure equality of the races, southern states were erecting a segregated system called Jim Crow--after a crippled slave in an 1830s minstrel show. In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctified the setup by arguing that separate accommodations for the races were okay so long as they were roughly equal.
The result was that while the freed slaves no longer were chattels, most of the 4 million remained in the South and stayed bound to wealthy landowners as part of the oppressive systems of sharecropping and tenancy. Their days were nearly the same as before, separating silky tufts of cotton from skin-piercing stems, lugging seventy-pound sacks as they crisscrossed the dusty fields from sunrise to sunset, and earning about three dollars a week. Sometimes their bosses were their former owners, and generally their wives and children worked alongside them. Even with those extra hands, at year's end sharecroppers owed the landowner most of their earnings to pay for bacon and molasses bought on credit, along with tobacco, tools, fertilizer, and work animals. The new system panned out for southern farmers: by 1880 King Cotton was back, with the region producing more than before the war. For the liberated Negro, however, the endof more than two centuries of slavery in America looked less like freedom than serfdom. He was "free from the individual master," the former slave Frederick Douglass observed in his autobiography, "but the slave of society."22
Nat Love was ten years old and the property of Tennessee planter Robert Love when the Civil War broke out. Nat's mother oversaw the kitchen in the Big House; his father supervised other slaves in the fields. His earliest memory: "pushing a chair in front of me and toddling from one to the other of my Master's family to get a mouthful to eat like a pet dog." While General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, "it was quite a while after this that we found out we were free," Love wrote decades later. He recalled how quickly visions of freedom became clouded. "While a great many slaves rejoiced at the altered state of affairs; still many were content to remain as before, and work for their old masters in return for their keep. My father, however, decided to start out for himself, to that end he rented twenty acres of land, including that on which our cabin stood, from our late master. We were at this time in a most destitute condition, and father had a very hard time to get a start, without food or money and almost naked, we existed for a time on the only food procurable, bran and cracklins."23
Some freed slaves headed North. Burgeoning industry there offered an escape from the plantation and promises made, then broken, by opportunist southern politicians. What they found on the floors of iron mills and textile factories were hours as long and work as punishing. Pay scales were higher than on the farm, thanks to labor unions. But they met unexpected hostility from their unionized white coworkers, who resented Negroes' frequent role as strikebreakers, yet barred those same Negroes from joining unions where they might have forged a black-white front against management.
The railroads, by contrast, had been anxious for "colored labor" since before the Civil War. Most of the jobs, and the best ones, were in slave states. That was easy to understand in the early 1800s, when the Wilmington & Raleigh, Montgomery & West Point, and other southern lines exploited slaves, twenty thousand of them, to lay andrepair tracks. Sometimes the railroads bought their own bondservants or bartered for them using stock in the railroad; more often they rented slaves from plantation owners, who were grateful for the extra cash when cotton prices were low and charged usurious fees when cotton was high. After the war southern railways were even more desperate for laborers to repair battle damage and expand existing lines. Again they turned to Negroes. Many freedmen willingly abandoned sharecropping for the lucrative railroad jobs. When more workers were needed, railroads paid states to use convict labor, most of which was colored.
It was not just as laborers that southern railroads relied on Negroes. They worked as firemen, riding alongside the engineer and shoveling coal into the boiler, as well as brakemen, who did the dangerous jobs of setting hand brakes and coupling together cars. They helped load baggage and freight and, on occasion, drove the train. They held those jobs when they were indentured servants, and after the war were hired in even greater numbers as brakemen, firemen, and yard switchmen on the Gulf Coast, Seaboard, and other lines in the South.
In the North and West, Negroes held few railroad jobs, responsible or otherwise. At first it was because there were fewer of them to draw from, but as more moved there after the war, opposition to hiring them grew on the part of management as well as unions representing white railroad workers. Racism fueled the resistance, along with unionists' legitimate fear of being replaced by Negroes from the South. In the South, railroads believed they had compelling reasons to hire Negro workers, starting with their earning 10 to 20 percent less than whites doing the same work. Management also was determined to keep out trade unions. Negro workers helped keep militant whites in line and, when needed, served as strikebreakers. Finally, southern railroads knew that workers used to performing slave labor were less likely to complain regardless of the rigors of their work or length of their day.
Those last qualities, the willingness to work long as well as hard, were eternalized in the former slave John Henry, a six-foot,two-hundred-pound railroad hand from North Carolina. With a heavy hammer and steel drill, Henry bored holes for explosives used to carve tunnels and smooth terrain so trains could pass. But in the early 1870s the steam drill threatened to displace Henry and his coworkers. In a classic showdown between man and machine, John Henry challenged a steam drill operator to see who could sink more steel. The two were set up at the Chesapeake & Ohio's Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Henry with a twenty-pound hammer in each hand, the drill and its handler to his right. The ballad bearing his name tells of the outcome: "The men that made that steam drill thought it was mighty fine. John Henry sunk a fourteen-foot hole and the steam drill only made nine." Much the way Daddy Joe would later stand tall for Pullman porters, so John Henry, whose legendary life was cut short by his superhuman exertions, stood as a marker of Negro contributions to early railroading.24
Those accomplishments did not escape the notice of George Pullman, who was making his own contribution to railroad lore by raising the bar for ornate overnight travel. He already had the makings of his sleeper in the form of the two-tiered Pioneer. He was bringing dining aboard. And years ago he had begun hiring conductors, starting with Jonathan L. Barnes, who was twenty-two when he made that first trip from Bloomington, Illinois, to Chicago on September 1, 1859. "I remember on the first night I had to compel the passengers to take their boots off before they got into the berths. They wanted to keep them on--seemed afraid to take them off," Barnes recounted later. Passengers also seemed afraid of the new sleeping car service, or at least skeptical, convincing George he could not afford his own conductors. But as rider reticence abated Barnes was brought back, along with scores of other specially trained Pullman conductors, all of whom were white.25
The conductors were masters at ministering to needs of the Pullman Company, from collecting tickets to selling berths and dispatching wires. As with managers in a hotel, their duties could include anything from doctor to diplomat, policeman to undertaker. Even at their best, however, these Caucasian men were neither trained nordisposed to do the humble work of valet, bellhop, maid, and janitor that any front-rank hotel relied on. Brakemen helped out in the early days, periodically passing through the sleeper to make beds and open or close windows. Adolescent entrepreneurs were part of the sleeping car scene, too. Water boys sold ice water and lemonade. News butchers, including a school-age Thomas Alva Edison, hawked newspapers and dime-store novels, maple sugar cakes, peppermint drops, sweetmeats, and salted peanuts designed to fuel later sales of ice cream and soft drinks. All that sated certain passenger needs, but it did not help George honor his pledge not just to match but to better America's best hostelries, no matter that his happened to be moving at sixty miles an hour.
That meant hiring personnel whose sole devotion was to unhesitating service. He baptized them Pullman porters. George did not invent the term porter. It was applied in the thirteenth century to doorkeepers, in the fourteenth to human bearers of burdens, and in the early 1800s to stewards who fed, filled with rum, and otherwise tended to passengers on boats that plied winding U.S. waterways like the Mississippi River and Erie Canal. Nor did he coin its use on railroads, where porters had been carrying passengers' luggage and otherwise easing their journey for decades. But as with so many of his offerings, George Pullman's porters set a standard for the hospitality industry. They came to define the vocation of railroad attendant and, for most Americans, made porter synonymous with Negro.
The first porter came aboard a Pullman sleeper as early as 1867 and was a fixture by 1870. Who he was is not known, due to the destruction of Pullman Company records in the great Chicago fire of 1871, but a lot can be surmised. He surely was a Negro and almost as certainly was one of the 4 million slaves President Lincoln helped free. He came from the plantation house rather than the fields, which better prepared him for working in close proximity to wealthy white passengers. He probably was from Alabama, Georgia, or the Carolinas, which were among the biggest slaveholding states and where George and his successors most often turned for the right blend of training and acquiescence. He would have beentall enough to pull down upper berths and slim enough to maneuver in narrow corridors of the sleeping car. One last thing: his skin probably was black as pitch, which would have been a drawback in many workplaces but was an asset to Pullman managers.
Why did George prefer dark-skinned Negroes, and why turn in the first place to ex-slaves to wait on his passengers? He never explained himself. He did not have to. His actions on other matters, at work and home, made clear what he was after.
The first thing was a bargain. The Pullman Company needed to cut costs anywhere it could in those days, when capital was limited and competition was fierce from Wagner, Woodruff, and a dozen other sleeping car magnates. George loved hunting for bargains, an instinct that would grow to an obsession. So he was parsimonious with workers who manufactured his sleepers, including craftsmen he brought over from Germany, Sweden, and England. Same with his conductors, ticket sellers, and, later, with his twin sons, whom he resented for their lavish living and left just trifles in his will. His philosophy on wages was the maxim of the marketplace: as little as necessary. Which, in the case of ex-slave porters, meant just enough to keep them fed, clothed, and disinclined to sample their other limited employment options.
"We pay them good salaries," George told a newspaper reporter in the early 1890s, explaining, in a statement that defied reason as well as reality, why porters need not look to the public for tips. But he probably was accurate when he added, "We can get all the good porters we want at the price we pay them."26
Pliancy also mattered to George, in how his sleeper staff responded to passengers and to Pullman Company bosses. This, too, was part of his evolving credo in life as in work. He demanded deference from the younger brothers he helped raise, and who rebelled against his overbearing authority. He insisted on fealty from his four children, only one of whom met his Victorian standards. He was fanatical in demanding loyalty from his factory workers and known to fire, on the spot, managers who second-guessed his edicts.
Negro porters seemed the ideal choice to deliver obedience bordering on obsequiousness. Who better to anticipate and cater topassengers' every caprice, from fetching a sandwich at sunup to mending torn trousers in the middle of the night, than men whose entire upbringing had been a long lesson in vassalage? How better to sell white riders on the slavish service on a Pullman car than to greet them with a smiling ex-slave? Despite his denials to the press, he knew his low wages would force porters to rely on tips to survive--giving them yet another incentive to provide the best service imaginable and raise as few protests as possible. That submissiveness also ensured, for at least the first half century of George's enterprise, that his Negro porters would follow orders the way he wanted, resist unions he detested, and be grateful for the jobs he dispensed.
The practice of recruiting Negroes from the Deep South in the hope they would be more compliant persisted long after George was gone and most old slaves were dead or too old to work. Pullman managers reconstructed it each time labor troubles heated up. In 1915, company officials were called before a congressionally chartered commission and questioned about those hiring policies. L. S. Hungerford, the general manager, explained that "the old southern colored man makes the best porter on the car." Asked why by the commission chairman, Hungerford recounted the reasoning used by George decades before: "He is more adapted to waiting on the passengers and gives them better attention and has a better manner." As for what training the company preferred in ex-slaves it hired, Hungerford said, "We get mostly house servants."27
George Pullman's most compelling motivation for hiring only Negroes, however, had to do with his conviction that for passengers to truly feel comfortable on his sleepers, they had to see the porter as someone safe. Ideally it would be a man you could look at but not notice, as if he did not exist. An invisible man. Which, given the social divide between Negroes and whites in those years after slavery, meant an ex-slave. To underline that otherness, Pullman managers favored swarthy-skinned applicants over those with creamier complexions. No danger, then, of a porter ever being mistaken for a passenger. In the words of one porter, the Pullman Company wanted "the blackest man with the whitest teeth."28
Did that make George a racist?
Undeniably, by today's standards or those of much of the last century. He paid freed slaves and their descendants embarrassingly small salaries, worked them as hard as they could stand, encouraged and exploited their submissiveness, and denied them--based solely on the blackness of their skin--promotion to conductor or any other meaningful management job. He barred most Negroes and all porters from the industrial town just south of Chicago that he founded and named after himself. While he was tough on all his workers, porters worked longer hours and earned considerably less than conductors and other whites in his employ. They were the only ones forced to fall back on tips to earn a living. And at the hint of unrest, George made clear that Negro porters could be replaced. Without hesitation or remorse.
His callousness stung more than just his porters. So high was the Pullman profile, and that of his sleeping car attendants, that over the years the Pullman porter came to personify the groveling Negro--and to reinforce the notion that the whole race was like that. Such stereotypes proved especially damaging in America's West and North, where porters were the only Negroes many whites knew. George's success in tapping for financial gain the image of the servile ex-slave, meanwhile, became a model for other employers, from managers of big buildings to hoteliers and restaurateurs. The Pullman Company "does more than any other organization in the world to make the negro a beggar and a grafter," the New York Press wrote in 1911. "More negroes are demoralized each year by the Pullman Company than are graduated by Tuskegee, Hampton and some other negro educational establishments."29
All that is true, but it also is hindsight. In the 1800s, George's record on race made him a moderate if not a reformer. He hired a Negro coachman and black domestics at a time when fellow aristocrats on Chicago's Prairie Avenue would only consider English servants. His will included five thousand dollars for Arthur A. Wells, the Negro porter who rode herd over his private sleeping car and was a trusted assistant. He sold Pullman tickets to Negroesin the South despite accusations that he was selling out the white race.b
George relished defying conventions that way and embracing what seemed like contradictions. He had broken every rule in transforming himself from cabinetmaker to sultan of the sleepers but was so proper that throughout Chicago's sweltering summer he wore a heavy Prince Albert topcoat, vest, and silk hat. He charmed the Scotsman Andrew Carnegie and doted on his own rheumatic wife but had little use for four of his seven surviving siblings, three of his four children, and, most especially, his mother-in-law. He contributed generously to charities like the building fund for a church in Albion but insisted that the church be called Pullman Memorial Universalist, that company gifts be made in his name, and that he be listed first in the donor registry of any charity he gave to. He never did anything merely because it was right. But he did more than most.
So it was with his porters. George did not pioneer the use of Negro workers on the railroads or the sleeping cars. Earlier railroad magnates understood that slaves and former slaves made good workers and could be had cheap. It has even been suggested that President Lincoln first broached to George using freedmen as sleeping car menials. And well he might have, since it would have solved his problem of putting them to work. While George's children denied a Lincoln link, over the years it became a mantra among porters that "Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired 'em." Whoever planted the idea, it is clear that George appropriated as his own the formula that Negroes constitute the ideal sleeping car servant. He then translated it into a science, the way hehad with the sleeper itself. It worked so well that by the early 1900s the Pullman Company was the largest employer of Negroes in America and probably the world.
That is the sleeping car czar's most consequential legacy, to his porters and the nation. Social commentators of his era applauded George for his beneficence. His motives mattered little to them and could not have been worse than those of his fellow robber barons, most of whom hired no Negroes at all. George never disguised his intent in bringing on only black-skinned porters. It was to earn cash, not accolades. It was meant to bless his company's bottom line, not the colored race. Whatever the reason, the results were arresting: thousands of Negro men freed from the dead-end choice of farm or factory, riding the nation's most ornate railroad carriages and relishing their adventure. He was the first northern industrialist to employ large numbers of Negroes--and his porters, in turn, helped prod the northward migration of tens of thousands of other southern Negroes as the nineteenth century drew to a close. President Grover Cleveland acknowledged those achievements at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, commending George for hiring more ex-slaves than anyone else.
Porters themselves rendered a similar verdict in those early years. Most were former chattels cautiously testing their liberties and sizing up the constraints. Making the job of Pullman porter a Negro monopoly let them trade in overalls for bow ties and starched pants. A job on the train meant nothing less than a chance to escape both Reconstructionists and Klansmen, along with fields of cotton, laws of segregation, and their own well-meaning parents whose experience as slaves blinded them to what the brave new world might offer. Opportunity was the operative word. To be sure, theirs was a Faustian bargain, one that meant earning next to nothing and working eternal hours as caretakers to almost unbearable luxury. But most cherished the position and made it a career, and many passed it down to sons and grandsons, brothers and nephews. They were grateful for their jobs and thankful to George.
"It was my pleasure to meet and chat with George M. Pullman, the father of the sleeping car, several times," recalled Nat Love, whobegan his work as a porter twenty-five years after he ended his bondage on a Tennessee plantation. "I found him to be a fine man, broad-minded in every sense of the word, always approachable and with always a kind word for every one of the large army of his employees that he met on his travels, and he always tried to meet them all."30 Henry Pope Jr., a porter based in Nashville, never knew George but credited him with giving ex-slaves "not only employment and a way to support themselves and families, but also that which they most needed: namely, an opportunity to educate themselves by travel and by contact with the more intelligent classes of travelers."31
George Henry Smock worked for the Pullman Company, same as his father, grandfather, and two brothers, and like them he had rough times on the sleepers along with easy ones. "Regardless of all the hardships, there was something to be gained, and it took care of our families and brought our families to a start that we were able to take care of them," Smock said. "There's good and bad in everything. There was more good in the Pullman porter and more good stated by passengers and people alike about the Pullman porter than there's been any other profession the black man's had. I don't care whether he was a doctor, a postman, a preacher--none of those: a Pullman porter, it stands out."32
Stand out he did. There were gripes, too, legitimate ones that would grow over the years and fuel a relentless drive for a trade union. But in the beginning the Pullman porter knew the confines of his choices. The prospect for Negroes like him who stayed close to home was sameness; porters experienced change. Staying meant rural simplicity or city ghettos; riding the trains let them see the country that had just granted them their first taste of independence. On the rails they met Americans of money and influence--presidents and starlets, Wall Street wizards and university chancellors--which was simply stunning to think of for men who had lived most of their lives as someone else's property. Most of all, Pullman porters understood that riding the sleeping car they were king, even if that regal standing ended when they pulled into the last station.
Copyright © 2004 by Larry Tye All rights reserved.