Column: We used to travel by train

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There was a day, now mostly forgotten, when we traveled by train. When the trip was long we rode in Pullman sleeper cars. There we could watch the scenery go by during the day and at night sleep in beds fashioned from the seats.

Pullman sleeper cars were the brainchild of George Pullman, an engineer from Brocton, N.Y., who got the idea in 1862 after suffering a sleepless night on a train from Buffalo to Westfield, N.Y. Everybody deserved a good night’s sleep while traveling, he reasoned.

The company he founded not only manufactured sleeper cars for America’s railroads but operated them as a separate enterprise. At the end of the Civil War, Pullman realized thousands of former black slaves would be looking for work. He began hiring them as conductors and porters on Pullman cars.

Pullman quickly became the largest employer of black men in the United States. Although the pay was not great, it was better than any other work available to black men at the time.

Pullman also built a company town south of Chicago in 1880. He reasoned that decent housing and all the trappings of a normal American town would attract a better class of employee. By 1884 the population of Pullman was 8,600.

Pullman sleepers were immediately popular. American travelers could not only travel in comfort but could enjoy luxurious service from the ever-attentive porters, whose job it was to cater to the traveler’s every need. Set your shoes out when you went to bed, and they were beautifully shined when you rose in the morning.

Pullman travel reached its zenith in the mid-1920s when 9,800 cars and 12,000 porters worked the nation’s rails. Curiously, all of the porters were called George, a moniker required by Pullman himself. Porters would commonly advise travelers, “If you need anything, just ask for George.”

The “George” edict did not sit well with many of the Pullman porters. In 1925 they unionized, forming The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. One of their demands was that each Pullman car display the real names of its porters.

One porter, Stanley Grizzle, wrote a history of Pullman porters entitled “My Name is Not George.” There was also a short-lived association called The Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George. More recently, Hollywood produced an exposé movie entitled, “10,000 Black Men Named George.”

In 1940, an anti-trust suit forced Pullman to sell his sleeping car operations to the railroads. The other part of the company continued to manufacture sleeping cars until 1956.

Interestingly, of the 12,000 Pullman porters who worked for the company, only 362 were actually named George.


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