Pullman is chiefly remembered for inventing the railroad sleeping car. However, he also built one of America’s first company towns, the town of Pullman, Illinois, where thousands of workers built the sleeping cars. The town later became part of Chicago’s Far South Side. Later still, the area was declared a Chicago landmark district and a national historic landmark. In 2015, United States President Barack Obama designated the Pullman Historic District as a national monument.
George Mortimer Pullman was born in Brocton, New York. He was the third of Lewis and Emily Pullman’s ten children. However, many of his siblings died in infancy. In 1845, Pullman quit school after the 4th grade and began working in a general store for $40 a month. In 1848, he moved to Albion, New York, where he became a building mover—moving buildings out of the way so the Erie Canal could be widened.
In the 1850’s, Pullman went to Chicago to help raise buildings to allow a new sewer system to be installed underneath. The system was also meant to help control flooding in the area, which had once been a marsh. In some instances, entire city blocks had to be elevated about 6 to 10 feet on massive beams and jacks. Pullman’s elevation work was done so smoothly that he was called a hero and a genius.
Pullman soon moved on to his next venture—the one that would make him a fortune as well as nationally famous: the luxury railroad sleeping car business. In 1858, Pullman and a business partner built the first two sleeping cars. Then he began creating bigger and more elaborate cars that could be converted from day to night use, with sleeping berths separated by curtains.
In 1867, Pullman organized the Pullman Palace Car Company (later shortened to the Pullman Company) to build his sleeping cars. He soon operated sleeping cars on all major railroads. Pullman introduced elegant dining cars with their own kitchens, beautiful parlor cars with individual reserved seats, and hotel cars with an attached kitchen and dining car. He also introduced enclosed vestibules for direct connection between cars. The Pullman cars offered first-rate service using newly freed house slaves as chambermaids, entertainers, porters, and waiters. After one of his sleeping cars was included in President Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, Pullman’s business grew rapidly.
In 1880, Pullman built a new manufacturing plant south of Chicago, near Lake Calumet. He also built a town next to it and required his workers to live in it. The town, which Pullman named after himself, featured hundreds of brick homes, a bank, a church, a hotel, a library, offices, a post office, a restaurant, a school, a theater, and numerous shops. At its peak, some 20,000 people lived, shopped, and worked in Pullman. Pullman ruled over the town with a heavy hand.
In 1894, in the midst of a depression, Pullman drastically cut jobs, wages, and working hours. But he refused to lower the rents or the cost of food in his town. Criticisms mounted and soon erupted into a violent strike by rail workers that left hundreds of railroad cars burned and a number of people dead and others injured. The bitter labor dispute also caused a nationwide blockade of railroad traffic as rail workers refused to handle any trains that included a Pullman car. Eventually, federal troops were sent in to break the strike and get the trains moving again. Pullman was forced to give up ownership of his town, and it was annexed to Chicago.
Pullman was a bitter and hated man when he died from a heart attack on Oct. 19, 1897. He was 66 years old. He was buried at Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side. Pullman feared angry employees would dig up his body or steal it and hold it for ransom. So he made arrangements to be buried in a lead-lined coffin sealed in a concrete block and placed in an eight-foot-deep grave with 18-inch thick reinforced concrete walls. Eight steel rails, bolted together, were placed above the casket, which was then sealed in tarpaper and asphalt. The grave was covered with a final layer of concrete. Today, the towering Corinthian column above Pullman’s grave remains one of the most elaborate grave monuments at Graceland.