In the spring of 1859, Chicago businessman George Pullman visited the railroad shops on Bloomington’s west side in order to build a prototype sleeping car, an ambitious venture that eventually gave rise to the famous Pullman Palace Car Co. empire.
By the late 1800s, Pullman — whose name would become synonymous with luxury rail travel — had attained wealth and notoriety befitting his status as Gilded Age robber baron.
Back in 1859, St. Louis, Alton and Chicago Railroad President Joel A. Matteson agreed to let the then relatively unknown Pullman convert two-day coaches into “sleepers.” The work was to be done at the StLA&C Shops in Bloomington where the St. Louis-to-Chicago line built and maintained its steam locomotives and rolling stock. (The railroad would become known as the Chicago & Alton in 1861.)
Pullman found invaluable the skilled hands and sharp mind of Leonard Seibert, a German-born cabinetmaker in the Bloomington shop’s coach-making department. From the StLA&C’s inventory of passenger cars Pullman and Seibert selected No. 9 and No. 19, the interiors of which measured approximately 44 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet high — quite roomy for the late 1850s.
“There were no blueprints or plans made for the remodeling of these first two sleeping cars,” recalled Seibert. “Mr. Pullman and I worked out the details and measurements as we came to them.” The StLA&C also made available master mechanic William Cessford and master car builder David Shield.
Contrary to local lore, these were not the first true sleeping cars — Pullman’s genius was not inventing the sleeper, but rather his conviction that the public would pay good money for a good night’s sleep in (relatively speaking) luxurious circumstances. Before Pullman entered the business, sleeping cars often had all the charm and comfort of rolling, rattling bunk houses.
The two coaches-turned-sleepers were finished in about four months at a cost of about $1,000 per car, though there are conflicting accounts as to the exact financial relationship between Pullman and the StLA&C.
Each finished car featured 10 two-tier berths, five to a side. The plush upholstered seats could be laid flat to create the lower berths, while the upper berths were suspended above and lowered via a Rube Goldberg-like series of ropes and pulleys. Curtains separated the berths, and the bedding included mattresses and blankets, but no sheets. A linen closet, marble-topped sink and toilet were located at each end.
On Aug. 15, 1859, railroad officials and members of the local press boarded No. 9 for a short publicity trip from downtown Chicago to nearby Summit. During the outing a demonstration of the switchover from seats to berths ended with a champagne toast.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 1, the refurbished No. 9 was attached to a StLA&C passenger train running between Chicago and Bloomington. An account of this inaugural “regular” run comes from J.L. Barnes, Pullman’s first sleeping car conductor. “The people of Bloomington, little reckoning that history was being made in their midst, did not come down to the station to see the Pullman car’s first trip,” noted Barnes. It was a learning experience for all involved. “I remember on the first night I had to compel the passengers to take their boots off before they got into the berths,” he added. “They wanted to keep them on — seemed afraid to take them off.”
Pullman’s most famous sleeper prototype, dubbed “Pioneer,” debuted in early 1865. Unlike the retrofitted No. 9 and No. 19 day coaches, his latest experimental car was built from the truck assemblies up. It was roomier, more luxurious and cost something like $20,000, an astounding figure for the day. Most importantly, it succeeded in capturing the traveling public’s imagination, and in the decades after the Civil War the Pullman Palace Car Co. would come to rule the railways.
The story of the first Pullman sleeping cars has long been mired in myth. This is especially true of “Pioneer.” Contrary to oft-repeated stories, this sleeper was not built at the Chicago & Alton Shops in Bloomington (it was built in Chicago), nor was it ever part of the Abraham Lincoln funeral train of April-May 1865, nor did its supposed extra width and height require railroads to cut back depot platforms and raise bridges.
Pullman played the role of industrial magnate with relish, and with the help of the federal government crushed the American Railway Union in the great strike of 1894. Yet whatever one’s feelings toward Pullman, there’s no denying his sleeping cars forever remade rail travel. And in many ways, it all started in Bloomington.