Thursday, October 19, 2006
George Pullman Dies, October 19, 1897
Today in 1897, George Mortimer Pullman died in Chicago, Illinois. Pullman’s career as a manufacturer of luxury railroad cars revolutionized train travel around the world, while the labor practices he embraced made him one of the most hated industrialists of his day.
Pullman was born in Brocton, New York in 1831. He quit school at the age of 14, ending up in Chicago a decade later. He arrived at the time when the city was in the need a new sewer system. Since much of the downtown area was low-lying, Pullman proposed building the sewers above street level by raising everything, including buildings, 10-12 feet. He demonstrated this by raising an entire city block of office buildings. This technique, along with the reversal of the Chicago River’s flow, helped alleviate the city’s sewer problems.
Pullman developed his idea of a so-called “palace car” in the mid-1860’s. Inspired by the packet boats he had seen on the Erie Canal in his youth, he designed a comfortable sleeping car, which came to be called the Pullman sleeper. When President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Pullman arranged to have his body carried from Washington to Springfield, Illinois in one of the Pullman cars. His young company received national attention and orders for cars rose sharply.
Pullman not only built railway cars, but also operated them. The Pullman sleeper was followed by a car with an attached kitchen and dining area. Wealthy travelers could dine on the finest food available anywhere while enjoying plush surroundings. Pullman employed many former slaves in the service side of his business; so many, in fact, that he became the largest employer of Americans of African descent in the post-Civil War era.
By 1875, Pullman had 700 cars in operation. He served on the board of directors of the Union Pacific railroad, a business that he had helped bail out of financial difficulties in 1871. He was married and had four children. The family traveled in the elite circles of the wealthy class in Victorian Era Chicago. Pullman had achieved the American dream.
In 1880, Pullman bought 4,000 acres of land south of Chicago. The plan was to not only build a new factory there, but homes, stores, churches, parks and schools enough for everyone who worked there. It was not to be a charity, for each employee would pay rent and a fair price for goods and services. Away from the noise and filth of the city, this planned community seemed like a workers’ paradise.
It was anything but. Pullman ran the town as if it were his personal kingdom and his employees royal subjects. Homes could be inspected for cleanliness with no warning. Leases could be terminated with 10 days’ notice. Religious denominations had to be approved in order to lease the town’s church, but none of the approved congregations would pay rent on the property. Thus, it sat empty. No public rallies or independent newspapers were allowed. One employee was quoted as saying, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”
1894 saw a drop in business for Pullman’s company. Employees were laid off and those who remained saw a cut in wages and working hours. Rent and prices in the company town, however, remained the same. Some workers joined the American Railway Union, which supported the Pullman employees by launching a boycott of all Pullman cars. The Pullman Strike was soon underway. We discussed the strike on episode 187, so we will only discuss the outcome here.
The Pullman Strike was ended by federal troops, sent by President Grover Cleveland on the belief that the delivery of the mail was threatened. A federal commission found that Pullman’s city, its overbearing rules and lack of concern for fair prices and rent caused the strike. In 1898, the Pullman Company lost a case in which the Illinois Supreme Court forced the company to give up ownership of the town. It later became part of Chicago.
George Pullman did not live to see the loss of his town. He died in 1897, still so loathed that he was buried in a lead-lined coffin placed inside a steel-reinforced vault. This was then buried under several tons of concrete. Pullman’s family feared that labor activists would dig up Pullman’s body, but no evidence of a plot to do so exists.
Although it was not his intention, Pullman’s company and the strike it endured helped promote the cause of organized labor in the United States. This was perhaps the man’s greatest contribution to late-19th and early 20th century America.