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date: 10 December 2019

Pullman, George Mortimerfree

(03 March 1831–19 October 1897)
  • John F. Stover

George Mortimer Pullman.

Print of a wood engraving, 1872.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105436).

Pullman, George Mortimer (03 March 1831–19 October 1897), industrialist, was born in Brocton, Chautauqua County, New York, the son of James Lewis Pullman, a carpenter and mechanic, and Emily Caroline Minton. In the mid-1830s James Pullman invented a machine to move buildings on wheels. George Pullman left school at the age of fourteen to become a clerk in his uncle’s general store in nearby Westfield at a salary of board and $40 a year. At about the same time his family moved from Brocton to Albion, a village along the Erie Canal some thirty miles west of Rochester, New York.

In 1848 George rejoined his family in Albion and worked with his older brothers, Henry and Albert, in a cabinetmaking shop. He also helped his father in his building-moving business. After his father’s death in 1853, George Pullman became a contractor in moving several buildings near the Erie Canal. This enterprise was successful, and he soon had a working capital of nearly $6,000.

In the mid-1850s Pullman moved to Chicago. But Chicago was a muddy and damp place, with many of the major streets only a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan. The only solution was to elevate the streets six to eight feet, well above the level of the lake and the Chicago River. This meant that many of the buildings would also have to be raised. Pullman received the contract to elevate the five-story Tremont House, one of Chicago’s best hotels. Using hundreds of men and thousands of jackscrews, the building, which covered an acre, was raised six feet without disturbing the hotel’s guests. Another time Pullman raised an entire city block of brick stores on Lake Street to the new street level without breaking a single pane of glass. Soon he was worth $20,000 and had more business than he could handle.

While traveling between Chicago and New York by rail, Pullman found the fixed-berth sleeping cars uncomfortable and crude. In Albion, Pullman had an old friend, Benjamin C. Field, a man of money and influence, who was interested in both politics and railroading. Field had obtained the right to offer the Woodruff sleeping cars to several western railroads. In 1858 Pullman and Field contracted with the Chicago & Alton Railroad to remodel two day coaches into sleeping cars. In the cars Pullman fashioned upper berths that could be lowered from the ceiling at night and raised during daytime travel. A third car was constructed in 1859. The Chicago & Alton found the three cars popular with passengers, but they refused to order any additional cars.

This refusal may have helped Pullman decide to go to Colorado. In 1860 he staked out a claim during the Pike’s Peak gold rush. Later he built a stamping mill, ran a general store, operated a wagon line, and acquired an interest in a silver mine. His Colorado projects were generally successful, and when he returned to Chicago in the spring of 1863, he was a rich man, and he had decided that the sleeping car business should be his life’s work.

Pullman had a round face that made him look younger than his thirty-two years, so he grew a beard to give himself a more mature look. Reserved and practical, he was conservative in dress and had little interest in idle conversation. Once settled in Chicago, Pullman and Field contracted to provide the Chicago & Alton with a new luxurious sleeping car costing $6,500. In 1864 and 1865 the partners obtained patents for their folding upper berth and a lower berth that was formed from the two facing seats. In 1865 they completed the still larger and more opulent Pioneer, which cost a record $20,000 to build.

Some have disputed the claim that the Pioneer was added to the Lincoln funeral train from Chicago to Springfield in May 1865, but Pullman certainly obtained valuable publicity from the statement. Soon the Michigan Central and then the Burlington began to use his equipment. By 1866 Pullman and his firm had about forty sleeping cars in service on a half-dozen different roads. On 22 February 1867 a charter was granted to the Pullman Palace Car Company with capital of $1 million. Pullman was president and general manager of the new company. Field had dropped out of the firm, but the new corporation was backed by two Chicago business leaders, John Crerar and Marshall Field (no relation to Benjamin Field). Four months after the incorporation Pullman married Harriet Amelia Sanger, the daughter of a prosperous Chicago railroad contractor. They had four children. In 1873 Pullman built a mansion at 1729 Prairie Avenue, quite close to the new home of Marshall Field.

The charter of the Pullman Palace Car Company permitted the firm to manufacture, purchase, lease, and operate railway cars. In the late 1860s the dominant sleeping car firm was the Central Transportation Company, which was strong in the East. Andrew Carnegie was a stockholder in Theodore T. Woodruff’s company, but he quickly became a firm ally of the young Chicago businessman. Carnegie liked Pullman’s business sense and energy and believed that the Central Transportation Company was overly conservative. In 1868 he helped Pullman obtain the sleeping car contract for the nearly completed Union Pacific–Central Pacific line to the West Coast. Two years later Carnegie helped Pullman obtain control, through a lease, of the Central Transportation Company.

By 1876 the Pullman company was operating 700 sleeping cars over 30,000 miles of line. Pullman insisted that his sleeping cars be operated with high uniform standards of safety, cleanliness, and comfort. He did not claim to have invented the sleeping car, but he did claim to have invented “railroad comfort.” Pullman car conductors and porters worked by a rule book, and company “spotters” strictly enforced the rules. After each run every car had all movable objects removed, and charwomen used soap and disinfectant to scrub the interior. By 1880 Pullman cars were operating on about 60,000 miles of road, or nearly two-thirds of the nation’s rail network.

Pullman kept his administrative offices in Chicago but in 1870 acquired property in Detroit for the building of sleeping cars; by 1880 its work force of 1,000 men could turn out more than a hundred cars a year. A few of the sleeping cars were shipped to Europe. A second plant in Elmira, New York, built and repaired cars for eastern lines. Most of the cars built by Pullman in the 1870s were sleeping cars, but a few were dining and parlor cars. His first dining car, the Delmonico, built in 1868, was a large $20,000 car with a kitchen in the center and dining areas on either end. By 1880 the Pullman Palace Car Company was prospering with assets of more than $12 million.

Also by 1880 Pullman had acquired nearly 4,000 acres of land bordering Lake Calumet, a dozen miles south of Chicago. He set aside about 500 acres for enlarged central car shops. The remaining area was to be a planned city, named Pullman, to house company employees. He hoped that the model city would result in a labor force less inclined to strikes and labor violence. He believed that paternalism might make his employees more loyal to the firm’s interests. The design of the dream city was worked out by architect Solon S. Beman. The Beman design included brick row houses, single dwellings, parks, churches, schools, a shopping arcade, and a hotel named for Pullman’s oldest daughter, Florence.

Construction of the new city was rushed, and by early 1882 more than 300 family units were occupied. By 1885 approximately 8,600 people were living in about 1,400 rental units. About a third of the units rented for $10 or less a month and two-thirds for no more than $14 a month. Most single-family units were rented for $17 to $25 a month. Employees could only rent the houses, because Pullman refused to sell any of the units. Estimates indicate that the rents in Pullman were a bit higher than those available outside the town, but most units were occupied. Many workers believed that company officials when hiring workers first chose men who would live in the company town.

The new central shops were also quickly built. Pullman purchased for $130,000 the giant Corliss engine, earlier on display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, to power much of the shop machinery. By 1890 the Pullman shops were building 1,000 passenger cars and 12,000 freight cars a year, along with a growing number of streetcars. During these years Pullman also made major investments in several railroads as well as New York’s Metropolitan Elevated Railroad. By 1890 Pullman’s firm was operating more than 2,000 sleeping cars over some 120,000 miles of railway line. Since the chartering of the company in 1867 dividends had never been less than 8 percent a year. In 1890 its assets exceeded $43 million. However, the labor history of the Pullman Company had not always been peaceful. Minor strikes in 1851 and 1884 were defeated by Pullman quickly hiring replacements for the striking workers. A strike in 1886 for an eight-hour workday was no more successful.

Pullman seemed contented with life in the early 1890s. He was proud of the town he had built and enjoyed showing it to visitors and friends. His green Pullman cars carried more than five million passengers each year. Pullman enjoyed traveling, frequently in his fabulous private car, to his office in New York City or to his vacation and summer homes in Long Branch, New Jersey, and on an islet in the St. Lawrence River. When in Chicago he liked to join Marshall Field, John Crerar, A. C. Sprague, and Philip Armour for lunch at the “millionaires” table in the main dining room of the Chicago Club on Michigan Avenue. And he was proud to have a Pullman company exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition that opened in Chicago on 1 May 1893.

But Pullman faced disaster in 1893–1894. The panic of 1893 started with a stock market crash in the spring, and by the end of the year nearly 500 banks and more than 10,000 commercial institutions had failed. As dozens of railroads faced receivership, the Pullman shops had little work to do. In August Pullman cut the wages of all his employees by 25 percent to 30 percent but refused to reduce the rents in the town of Pullman or cut company dividends or reduce the salaries of company officials. Many workers were dismissed, and the workforce by early 1894 had declined by nearly a third.

The workers protested the failure of Pullman to cut their house rents, and many began to join the American Railway Union, headed by Eugene V. Debs. In early May 1894 Pullman finally met with employee representatives, but the workers were skeptical about his protestations of concern for their welfare. They called a strike for 11 May 1894. Late in June the American Railway Union called a sympathy strike and refused to handle any Pullman cars across the nation. When violence broke out in Chicago, troops were sent to move the mails. This quickly broke both the strike and Debs’s union. But the town of Pullman had lost its luster, and the man himself was confused. Both the public and the press were critical of Pullman’s attitude toward the strike. They could not accept his insistence that he had a duty to his stockholders and that he was running a business, not a charity. When the shops reopened in August, most of the Pullman strikers were rehired if they resigned from Debs’s union.

George Pullman never fully recovered from the labor troubles of 1893–1894. He died in his Chicago Prairie Avenue home. Pullman made modest gifts to a number of Chicago civic projects, including musical festivals, the Chicago Orchestra, and the World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1895 the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church, a commemoration to his parents costing $80,000, was dedicated in Albion. His largest gift was the $1.2 million bequest in his will to build and sustain a free school of manual training for people either living or employed in the town of Pullman.


Some papers concerning George Pullman are deposited at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The best and most complete Pullman biography is Liston E. Leyendecker, Palace Car Prince: A Biography of George Mortimer Pullman (1992). An excellent history of Chicago, where Pullman lived and worked, is Bessie L. Pierce, A History of Chicago (3 vols., 1937–1957). Volume 3, 1871–1893, is the most important. The definitive work on railroad passenger and sleeping cars is John H. White, Jr., The American Railroad Passenger Car (1978). A detailed review of the town of Pullman is Stanley Buder, Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880–1930 (1967). The story of the strike is fully covered in Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike (1942). A short obituary is in Railroad Gazette, 22 Oct. 1897.