Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the first run of Chicago and Alton No. 9, the first sleeping car designed by George Pullman. Although Pullman’s name would become synonymous with overnight rail travel, this was not the first passenger car designed for a more comfortable rest.
Most trace the first true sleeping cars to the Cumberland Valley Railroad which ran between Harrisburg and Chambersburg, PA. The car Chambersburg featured fold-down berths much like those of Pullman’s early designs and debuted 20 years earlier in 1839. The accommodations were much less regal than Pullman’s, with un-upholstered planks in rows three high serving as beds. Eastbound passengers arrived in Chambersburg from stage coaches about midnight to board the train for Harrisburg which would arrive by 5 AM for connections to other trains for Philadelphia. Although basic, after the 36 hour coach ride from Pittsburgh, those planks probably looked pretty good!
Pullman’s cars may not have been the first, but his concept of service (and some fortuitous advertising from a most unfortunate event) quickly set his company apart from the rest. Pullman had trouble convincing railroads that the extra weight and cost of his new Palace Cars was worth it. That is until his car carried the body of America’s beloved President Lincoln across the country on its return home in 1865. The thousands who poured out to see the train in towns large and small were also catching a glimpse at the future of rail travel. Soon, the company had all the orders it could handle.
Pullman was more than a car, it was a service. In order to justify the expense of his tickets, Pullman had to offer more than just a cushioned ride or a bed. Pullman quickly began adding dining services with menus prepared by the finest chef’s in the country. To cater to every whim of his passengers, Pullman hired the largest workforce of freed African-Americans in the country as porters. Passengers could have shoes shined, clothes mended, telegrams dispatched and more, all while traveling in comfort from city to city.
To be sure, Pullman catered to the elite. But he also sought to bring luxury to the middle class as well. As Pullman’s fleet grew, so did the range in accommodations. From single berths which folded away into seats during the day up to spacious double-bedrooms with private bath facilities, there was a room for almost any budget. By the dawn of the 20th Century, Pullman was operating the largest hotel chain in the world.
In 1944, as a result of an anti-trust suit, the Pullman Company was forced to separate its operating and manufacturing arms. Railroad companies took over the operations while Pullman-Standard continued the manufacture of passenger and freight equipment. By then however, in the public mind it didn’t matter whose name was on the car. If you want to ride in style, you ask for a Pullman.