Chicago, 1859


Although Pullman dropped out of school at age 14, he eventually became one of Chicago's most influential figures. The city of Chicago installed a new sewer system in 1855, but so that it could drain into the river the new pipes were installed several feet above the ground. Streets were brought up to the new grade of the city, but existing buildings still had foundations at the original grade and stairs were required to access the street from the base of the buildings. New buildings, lamp posts, and even trees were raised to the new grade, but the problem remained of how to deal with the existing buildings. This because the perfect opportunity for George Mortimer Pullman, who was a 28-year old building mover from Albion, New York.

Pullman would employ large groups of men, as many as 600 at a time, with each man in charge of several jacks. On signal, each man would turn his jacks a small amount. As the building slowly ascended, the foundations of the buildings would be shored up. In this way, he raised buildings so smoothly that businesses could continue to run while their structures were elevated. Pullman was hailed as a genius and a hero.

Pullman took the capital he earned from raising buildings and moved on to developing a new venture: luxury railroad cars. Rail travel had been a hard exercise in hunger and boredom before Pullman. He created train cars with elegant restaurants, accordion connectors between cars to keep out wind and noise, and well appointed sleeper compartments with fine sheets and pillows. Ben Field and George Pullman were issued United States Patent number 42,182 for his sleeper car. A master public relations man, Pullman made sure that when President Abraham Lincoln died, a Pullman car returned his body to Illinois.

A young George Pullman

1867, the Pullman Company is incorporated

The first coast-to-coast rail trip occurred in 1870, and consisted of the newest and best Pullman cars. The ten day trip delighted the nation because getting there, for the first time in history, was truly half the fun. The train was billed the Pullman Hotel Express, and it was one of the best advertisements George Pullman used. Going from Boston to San Francisco, and carrying dignitaries that in and of themselves were noteworthy. The seven car train was called the most elaborate well equipped train ever to see the rails. The success of the transcontinental trip bolstered the demand for Pullman's cars.

The company grew as fast as they could buy, build, or corporate raid companies who built or had railroad cars. Within just a few years, it had become a mega company serving both America and Europe. By the end of the century, Pullman owned and operated 7500 palace cars which were operated by seventeen thousand employees. The speed of a mile a minute and averaging 20 million guests each year. In addition to being by far the largest motel and restaurant company in the world, the Pullman Company of the turn of the century was also the largest builder of both passenger and freight railroad cars in the world.

One of Mr. Pullman's last major projects was to build the city of Pullman near Chicago in 1880. An industrial community of 12,000 inhabitants whose goal was to build the most beautiful railroad cars in the world. The community had not one saloon, and was called by the newspapers of the time "the most perfect city in the world."


1893, the Pullman Company is worth $62 Million

The railroad car business made him a fortune. Pullman never sold his sleepers; instead, railways leased them from his company and handed over the premium they charged passengers for the luxury ride. With over two thousand cars on the rails, his company was worth $62 million in 1893.  Not content as a mere businessman, Pullman created a utopian town for his workmen, with state-of-the-art houses, proper sewage lines, a church and even a library -- but no alcohol. It was a dry town. But the lovely village of Pullman, just south of Chicago (and now within city limits) operated like his rail car business: designed to make a profit for Pullman's investors. All houses were leased, never sold. Even the church was to be leased, but the rent was too high for any sect to occupy it. He also sold city water and gas to his employee-residents -- at a 10% premium.

The Chicago plant continued to introduce many of the firsts in railroad history; first vestibule car, gas lighting, steam heat, steel cars, light weight car, aluminum car, articulated car, and the dome car. Amidst all of this, the plant also served the nation during two world wars, building munitions, airplane wings, patrol boats, escorts, landing ships, etc. Pullman operated six other manufacturing plants all serving the railroad industry in peace time and Uncle Sam to support the War efforts.

1894, Pullman Workers go on Strike

In the winter of 1893-4, at the start of a depression, Pullman decided to cut wages by 30%. This was not unusual in the age of the robber barons, but he didn't reduce the rent in Pullman, because he had guaranteed his investors a 6% return on their investments in the town. A workman might make $9.07 in a fortnight, and the rent of $9 would be taken directly out of his paycheck, leaving him with just 7 cents to feed his family. One worker later testified: "I have seen men with families of eight or nine children crying because they got only three or four cents after paying their rent." Unable to make a living wage, on May 12, 1894, the workers went on strike.

The American Railway Union was led by Eugene Victor Debs, a pacifist and socialist who later founded the Socialist Party of America and was its candidate for president in five elections. Under the leadership of Debs, sympathetic railroad workers across the nation tied up rail traffic to the Pacific. The so-called "Debs Rebellion" had begun. Debs gave Pullman five days to respond to the union demands but Pullman refused even to negotiate with the unions. Instead, Pullman locked up his home and business and left town. On June 26, all Pullman cars were cut from trains.

Debs could not pacify the pent-up frustrations of the exploited workers, and violence broke out between rioters and the federal troops that were sent to protect the mail. On July 8, soldiers began shooting strikers. That was the beginning of the end of the strike. By the end of the month, 34 people had been killed, the strikers were dispersed, the troops were gone, the courts had sided with the railway owners, and Debs was in jail for contempt of court.

1894, George Pullman's Last years

Pullman's reputation was soiled by the strike, and then officially tarnished by the presidential commission that investigated the incident. The report condemned Pullman for refusing to negotiate and for the economic hardships he created for workers in the town of Pullman: "The aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread." The State of Illinois filed suit against the Pullman Company's ownership of a town, and the neighborhood was reabsorbed into the fabric of the city.

When Pullman died on October 19, 1897, his family was worried that his corpse would be desecrated by former employees. His tomb in Graceland cemetery was a pit eight feet deep, with floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete. The lead-lined casket was buried at night, and covered with asphalt, more concrete and steel rails. The grave was then sodded and fitted with a Corinthian column.

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