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The Sleeping Car King: Who Was George Pullman?

In part three of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, author Jack Kelly discusses the short reign of George Pullman and his costly attempt for riches. 

By
Jack Kelly,
Episode #67
image of modern train with pullman standard logo in background

The Pullman car is one of those things we’ve heard about, but we’re maybe not quite clear about what it was. In fact, it was a railroad car invented back in the 1860s, that allowed a passenger to get a good night’s sleep.

It was named for George M. Pullman, a highly successful Chicago businessman. In the 1890s, he was known as the Sleeping Car King. That’s a quaint term today—hard to imagine that a man could make a fortune in sleeping cars. But in America after the Civil War, the railroads really were the roads to riches for many.

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In those days, almost everyone who traveled any distance, traveled by train. If you look at maps of the railroads of the day, they look plates of spaghetti—trunk lines spanned the country, local lines connected cities, towns, tiny hamlets, even individual farms, which shipped their milk and produce to town by rail.

But rail travel, although it was faster than a journey by stagecoach or horse and buggy, was still no pleasure. Trains were hot in summer, cold in winter, and sooty all the time. They were noisy. The seats were uncomfortable and a trip that lasted several days was a real ordeal.

The name Pullman became synonymous with the height of fashion.

In the 1860s, just as the first transcontinental railroad was being born, George Pullman had a brainstorm. He imagined that making train travel comfortable could make a man big money.

The classic Pullman car is largely forgotten now, although you’ll sometimes see them in old movies. In its most common form, it was a convertible car. During the day it looked like an ordinary coach car with seats. At night, it could be transformed into a two-tiered dormitory, with clean, comfortable upper and lower berths for passengers to stretch out in.

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