George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) was a great man who did great things, but he was not popular.
He first gained wealth as an engineer who specialised in moving and lifting wood-frame buildings. He made his fortune jacking up structures when the street-level was raised 6-8 feet to accommodate a sewage system in the low-lying delta of the Chicago River. His party-piece was the lifting of the six-storey Tremont House hotel while the guests remained inside.
His fame, however, rests on the development of the railroad sleeping car, which first appeared in 1864. Again, he pulled off a publicity coup by offering his “palace car” to convey the coffin of the assassinated President Lincoln to his burial in Springfield, Illinois, in 1865.
Pullman’s “hotels on wheels” gave middle-class riders a taste of high life, and rail passengers the world over benefitted from his invention of vestibules between passenger carriages in 1887.
His practice of hiring black men, emancipated slaves who had trained as housemen, to serve as highly skilled, disciplined and well-presented porters in his Pullman cars, is credited with helping to found the African-American middle-class, but the work was onerous and badly paid. The black historian and journalist Thomas Fleming remarked that being a Pullman porter was, paradoxically, “the best job in his community and the worst on the train”.
Even less visible was the smaller number of black women whom Pullman employed to take care of female passengers and their children.
The eponymous company town, Pullman, Illinois, begun in 1880 and designed by the architect Solon Spencer Beman (1853-1914), was an unashamed attempt to create a community of workers untainted by vice, political agitation or freedom of speech.
Crucially, the housing and the apparently generous civic facilities were intended to make a profit from the wages he paid his workers, and when Pullman felt compelled by a downturn in orders in 1894 to reduce wages and increase working hours, he saw no reason at the same time to reduce rents.
The resulting strike, which practically shut down the nation’s transport system, was quashed violently by federal troops provided by President Grover Cleveland.
When George Pullman died in 1897, he was buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. His elegant monument, a single Corinthian column, was designed by Solon Spencer Beman.
His family were so concerned that union members might defile his grave that he was buried in a lead-lined mahogany coffin, encased in a room-sized block of concrete, pinned down by railway rails and covered by another layer of concrete.
The forthright American journalist Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce commented, “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the sonofabitch wasn’t going to get up and come back.”
No-one will ever exhume George Pullman in a hurry.