'Pullman': history of trains and labor union strife

March 29, 1992|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Mr. Rasmussen is a librarian at The Sun.

PALACE CAR PRINCE:

A BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE

MORTIMER PULLMAN.

Liston Edgington Leyendecker.

University Press of Colorado.

323 pages. $29.95. George M. Pullman, whose name has become synonymous with travel and also with labor strife, is the subject of this fascinating biography.

Prior to Pullman's development of the sleeping car in the late 19th century, nighttime arrangements aboard trains were crude and uncomfortable. Travelers often arrived at their destinations cranky and disheveled. Pullman had suffered such abuse and wondered why something could not be done about it.

His development of the sleeping car changed the way Americans traveled and eventually, though less successful, made their way to Europe. However, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits proved to be a formidable competitor.

A journalist described a trip aboard Pullman's car this way: "A man must be troubled with tooth-ache or treason who fails to fall to sleep pleasantly in this elegant compartment."

Pullman was born near Buffalo, N.Y., in 1831. An innate business acumen carried him from the family farm to the gold fields near Pikes Peak, Colo., where he ran a successful grocery business, and to the Pullman Palace Car Co., which manufactured the Pullman sleeper.

He acquired vast wealth and power, along with a home on Chicago's Prairie Avenue and a summer "cottage" at fashionable Long Branch, N.J. President Benjamin Harrison paid him a high compliment by asking for the name of his tailor. He rubbed shoulders with capitalist cronies Marshall Field and Philip Armour, and he and his family were a fixture of Chicago society.

But by the 1870s and 1880s, when Pullman had more than 700 cars in operation on American railroads, chinks became discernible in the Pullman empire.

In 1880, he built a company town that consolidated his car-building operation at one site. The 4,000 acres that comprised Pullman, Ill., contained not only shops but also homes for his workers.

"George Pullman himself detested alcoholism, which ruined a man's health, led to work absences and impaired job efficiency -- all of which wasted Pullman's money," writes biographer Liston Leyendecker, a Colorado State history professor. "To remove working men to a clean, well-kept setting free from squalor and accompanying vices -- a place where they could be taught middle-class virtues and walk to work -- seemed a prime solution to the palace car entrepreneur."

The stock market crash of 1893 plunged the nation into the worst depression of the century. Pullman cut wages but failed to cut rents of workers who lived in Pullman, Ill. Workers were abused by shop foremen seeking to extract the same amount of work out of the labor force. Many began to join the American Railway Union, which was headed by Eugene V. Debs.

A strike was called on May 11, 1894. But in July, violence occurred when Pullman workers, as well as sympathetic railroad workers, supported the strike. Federal troops and the Illinois militia were called to suppress the rioting. Four strikers were killed, and several soldiers wounded. More than 700 rail cars in Chicago's Panhandle Yards were destroyed.

The uneasy peace that followed the Pullman strike had "angered the public and besmirched Pullman's name," according to Chicago journalist George C. Sikes.

Its effect on Pullman and his health was devastating. He had a violent temper, never tolerated mistakes and had successfully removed himself from personally knowing his work force and their problems. He was the typical 19th century autocrat who failed to adjust to changing labor and economic conditions.

He died in 1897, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery in a crypt lined with concrete and steel beams. Pullman feared that his grave might be robbed by a disgruntled employee and desecrated.

The golden age of Pullman sleeping cars was the 1920s, when nightly 250,000 travelers settled into Pullman compartments or upper or lower berths. However, by 1946, because of anti-trust action, Pullman was forced to relinquish its sleeping-car business and this was sold to 43 participating railroads for $75 million.

Well written and liberally illustrated, this work on Pullman's life should find favor not only with railroad scholars and fans but also those who are interested in American business history.

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