The historic legacy of Pullman Palace Cars
Pullman Palace Cars were once known as “the largest hotel in the world”
During America’s Gilded Age, numerous people focused on the new industrial fortunes as markets for their services. Richard Morris Hunt became a go-to architect for Gilded Age mansions and Frederick Law Olmsted was sought out to landscape Gilded Age estates (see Biltmore, for example, where George Vanderbilt hire both Hunt and Olmsted to design his French chateau-esque estate in Asheville, North Carolina in the 1890s). The Vanderbilt fortune, of course, was largely built on railroad during the era of America’s great railroad expansion, particularly centered on the New York City region.
In Illinois, George M. Pullman sought to monopolize the growing luxury railcar market, also focusing on the Gilded Age’s nouveau riche. Beginning in 1859, Pullman built his first sleeper car as an intentional improvement over the standard mid-19th-century railcars. In 1862, he established the Pullman Company, and the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867 to manufacture—and operate!—luxury sleeping cars. The Pullman Company paid railroad companies to hook Pullman cars to their trains and hired out Pullman Porters (hiring African American men) to service the passenger cars. Eventually, Pullman sleeping cars were operating on most of the railroads in the United States with some 26 million passengers a year.
The Pullman legacy is remembered by history and marked across the American landscape today in various ways. In labor history, the Pullman Company is still known as the site of the largest labor strike in US history. Similar to the Homestead strike at one of Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in 1892, the Pullman Company strike the following year illustrates the difficult lives of the working class that were the underpinnings of these vast industrial fortunes. A new book about this strike “The Edge of Anarchy” by Jack Kelly was just published by St. Martin’s Press (see the link to a review of the book below).
The Pullman State Historic Site and Pullman National Monument preserve and interpret the center of the former Pullman Company planned community. In Washington, DC the Pullman House—built in 1910 for George Pullman’s widow (after his death in 1897)—was sold to Russia for an embassy in 1913 and is preserved today as the Russian Ambassador’s residence. It is part of Washington, DC’s 16th Street Historic District and is located just blocks from the White House. (The historic photography above of the Pullman House is from the Library of Congress' collection of Historic American Building Survey documentation and is in the public domain).
A review by Perry Munyon of
“The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America” by Jack Kelly
Review printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 31, 2019