Builders of Wooden Railway Cars ... and some of other stuff

The Pullmans Palace Car Company

George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) was not the first to conceive of a sleeping car.

o In 1836, the Cumberland Valley Railroad put into service a bunk car it christened the Chambersburg. This car, with its permanent bunks at three levels, was imitated by a number of railroads.
o In 1838, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad put into service the first cars with convertible seats for both day and nighttime use.
o In 1843, the Erie Railroad, although then only three hours end-to-end, put into service the “Diamond Cars” -- so known because the truss-work in their sides dictated that the windows be of that shape. These cars were built by the John Stephenson Car Company.
o In 1850, the Baltimore & Ohio had sleeping cars with berths in three tiers.
o In 1856, Theodore T. Woodruff conceived and patented the first true sleeping car with seats that converted into bunks. The Wason Car Company built a prototype in 1857 that was run on several railroads. By the fall of 1858 Woodruff had 21 cars in service. {2}

But none of these cars were known for comfort. What Pullman did was create comfortable cars, package them with necessary services, and promote them to a public in search of luxury.

Pullman had early on joined his brother Albert in his cabinet-making business in Albion, NY. He learned the trade, but there wasn’t enough business to support both brothers, and George had to find other employment. About that time, the Erie Canal was being widened through the area and George contracted to move a number of buildings back from edge of the old canal to the edge of the new one.

In 1855 he moved to Chicago, where he made a name for himself raising houses out of the swamp on which the city had been built, and into which it was sinking. Besides making a reputation for himself, he accumulated sizeable wealth.

On a visit home to New York, Pullman and a close friend, state senator Benjamin Field (1816-1876) formed a company to build and operate sleepers of an improved design. Field had previously organized a company that built and operated sleeping cars for the New York Central, but Pullman felt they could do better. {2}

They approached the Chicago and Alton Railroad with a prospectus for a sleeping car and were assigned two of the newest coaches on the property: no. 9 and no. 19. These cars were 44'-1" over end sills and 10'-5˝" wide at the eaves. They had nearly flat roofs and 15 single-pane windows, and rode on four-wheeled trucks. {2}

Pullman hired a craftsman in the Alton shops, who hired a couple of workmen, and over the next four months -- without so much as a blueprint -- they created the first “Pullman” cars. These cars had ten “sections,” each with a lower and an upper birth. The device for lowering the upper birth was somewhat different than Woodruff’s patent. The bunks were fitted with  mattresses and a blanket, but no sheets or pillow cases. Cherry was used throughout, and wash-stands had marble tops. Seats were upholstered in red plush, but there was no carpeting. {2}

Pullman's 1st real sleeper

Pullman’s first real sleeping car — a remodeled Chicago & Alton coach.

One source says they spent $1,000 on each car, while another says they spent $8,000 altogether (perhaps including the original cost of the cars?). (The latter would be about the equivalent of $150,000 today.) The cars were tried out on the Alton with reasonable, if not great success, and a third was soon added. Armed with this success, Field continued building and placing sleepers on various western railroads, but Pullman decided to follow the gold rush to Colorado. {3}

There he set to gold milling at the town of Russell Gulch above Central City, as well as operating a freight business and keeping a store in Central City, under the name of Lyon, Pullman & Company. With business associates both from Colorado and from Chicago, he put together a 1,600 acre ranch which became an important stopover place between Denver and Central City. It became known as “Pullman's Switch,” because it served as a place where one could switch teams from one weary set of animals to a fresh set before making the long climb into the mountains.

Pullman prospered during his years in Colorado, not because of his gold operations, which netted him only break-even wages, but because of his business ventures. In 1863, Pullman returned to Illinois with more than $20,000 (equivalent to more than a quarter of a million dollars today) ready to commence building his famed railroad cars.

Drawing from U.S. Patent 42,182 Drawing from U.S. Patent 42,182 titled Improvement in Sleeping Cars, granted to Ben Field and George M. Pullman 5 April 1864. (Click pic for enlargement.)

While Pullman was in Colorado, Field had built an additional sleeping car for the Alton and now had a contract for four more.

In July 1863, Field and Pullman delivered a 58'-0" car built by the Wason Car Company. It had 14 sections with a stateroom at each end. During the day, it gave the appearance of a parlor with sofas along each side. But at night the sofa bottoms slid out from the wall, the backs folded down, the upper berths were lowered, and damask curtains were drawn across the sections, leaving a 36" aisle between them. Linen was provided equivalent to a first-class hotel. The 56-passenger car rode on four, four wheel trucks, which reduced side-sway to almost nothing. It bore the name Springfield, in honor of Wason’s Massachusetts hometown. {4}

Inerior of early Pullman Palace Car
Pullman “Palace” cars featured plush upholstery, ample lighting, and ornately decorated interiors.


11 April 2006

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