Thursday, March 30, 2017


By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Admittedly, I have always had a fascination with trains. Perhaps it had something to do with the stories my mother told me of traveling by train. She had been a professional singer, musician and recording artist since childhood, and toured the country with her sisters, primarily by train.

I remember her telling me how she sometimes had to run to make a train, carrying her encased bass fiddle (which was bigger than her), while her older sisters carried a guitar and mandolin, respectively. I remember her talking about the kind porters, the dining cars, and private sleeping compartments (when available). During World War II, private compartments were hard to come by and sleeping berths were all one could get. At times, even they were rare, especially since priority was always given to the military.

I also remember my mother telling me about how my great grandfather, a Pinkerton detective, often had assignments with railroads, particularly the KATY Railroad. Such assignments might involve ensuring a certain passenger or cargo (usually payroll) reached its destination. An ongoing investigation of train robberies, and/or sometimes surprising the dastardly bandits red-handed while safeguarding passengers. I was always fascinated by the family history that he often disarmed the villain with a surprise right hook. Tall, auburn-haired and green-eyed, he didn’t want to risk gunfire that might harm innocent passengers. Although quite adept with a Colt .45, he was very methodical in how he worked. But today I am not going to talk about this fascinating person in my family tree, or how he inspired the hero, Jordan Blake, in my western time travel, WHISPER IN THE WIND. Instead, I am going to talk about trains; in particular, the famous Pullman train cars -- especially the private cars custom built for cattle barons, industrialists, Presidents and royalty.

[Pictured: Pullman Sleeper Car set for daytime use, 1891]

Founded by George Pullman in 1862, the Pullman Car Company manufactured railroad cars, including passenger, dining, and privately owned railroad cars from the mid-1800s. The name Pullman quickly became synonymous with comfort and great service for those traveling by train. After all, it was Pullman who designed and manufactured what was known as the sleeper car after an uncomfortable railroad trip where he (along with other passengers) had to sleep in their seat.

The first sleeper cars were made in 1864, and designed so that an upper berth could be folded up during the day (much like the overhead baggage compartment on airplanes today). At night, the berth was opened to comfortably allow a passenger to recline and sleep. The two seats facing one another located beneath the upper berth also folded down to provide a lower berth for passengers to sleep. Curtains were also provided for privacy. Sleeper cars also had washrooms at the end of each car for men and women.

In the illustration pictured left, you can better see how seats were situated, as well as the upper berth area. This particular advertisement for Pullman was from 1910, but the design is the same as what Pullman developed in the mid 1800s.

In 1867, Pullman introduced the President, the first sleeper car that included an attached kitchen and dining car. In what soon was referred to as a “hotel on wheels”, the food served in the dining cars was said to rival fare one found in the best restaurants. The President dining car became so popular that in 1868, the Delmonico made its debut on the rails. With a menu prepared by chefs from the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City, the Delmonico was the first sleeper rail car exclusively for fine cuisine.

In addition to the comfort and fine dining passengers were now able to obtain traveling on a Pullman, the service they received was also impeccable. The Pullman Car Company hired African American freemen as porters. Many had been domestic slaves before the war. As Pullman porters, they were now paid good wages, traveled the country, and their positions were respected.

Consequently, Pullman not only built standard sleeper cars that were very comfortable, but private luxury sleeper cars which featured upholstered furniture, wall coverings, carpeting, draperies, libraries, and card tables, and an unparalleled level of customer service.

Among the privileged customers who had such private cars was President Abraham Lincoln. His Presidential train car appropriately named the United States was built during the Civil War in Alexandria, Virginia in 1863 and at the United States Military Car Shops in 1864. In addition to providing privacy and security for the President, the train was designed with 16 wheels for a smoother ride. This mid-1800s version of “Air Force One” featured windows of etched glass, carpeting, velvet brocade upholstered walls, fine furnishings, a painted bald eagle national crest, as well as private meeting rooms and parlors for Lincoln and his advisers to relax.

Unfortunately, Lincoln never used the United States during his lifetime. Historians have speculated Lincoln might have felt the train too luxurious to use while the nation was divided and extreme hardships were being endured by citizens.

However, it was the United States that carried the body of President Abraham Lincoln on his final journey from Washington, D.C. to Illinois. The funeral train’s planned stops were reported in newspapers, allowing more than 7 million citizens to pay their respects and watch the famous train as it slowly passed through seven states and 180 cities. The train also stopped in numerous towns during its 1600 mile trek. Elaborate horse-drawn hearses would convey Lincoln’s coffin to public buildings for viewing. It should also be noted that the funeral train was not just for Lincoln. The body of his young son, Willie, (who had died from typhoid fever) was being brought back to Springfield to be re-buried beside his father.

Perhaps because of its tragic association as the Lincoln funeral train, rather than keep the luxurious train for use by President Andrew Johnson, the government sold the private car for $6,850 to the Union Pacific Railroad. Executives at the Union Pacific used the train car for several years.

NOTE: Ironically, after George Pullman's death in 1897, Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of Abraham Lincoln became president of the Pullman Car Company.

Although the Pullman Company built private cars used by Presidents, they were not specially customized again until the 1940s. During World War II, Secret Service felt President Franklin D. Roosevelt required a more secure car, and also one equipped for his special needs due to his paralysis from polio.

Initially built in 1929, the Ferdinand Magellan (later known as U.S. No. 1) had been manufactured as a luxury private car; one of six such cars, each one named after a famous explorer. With special alterations, the Ferdinand Magellan became the first passenger train car specifically customized for a President since the United States private car for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

Here are some of the changes made to the Ferdinand Magellan by the Pullman Car Company.

The rail car’s original six bedrooms were reduced to four, two of which were a suite for the President and First lady, with a fully equipped bathroom (with a bathtub) that connected both bedrooms. The dining room [pictured] had a mahogany table that could seat eight, and was also used as a conference room. Quarters for two stewards, as well as a pantry, galley, storage and ice bunkers were located at the front of the rail car.

For security purposes, windows were sealed, bullet resistant glass. Since they could not be opened, interior air was cooled by blowing it over melted water from ice. Bank vault-type doors were located at the rear entrance to the private car. There were also two escape hatches, one in the Presidential bathroom and one in the lounge. In addition, a custom built wheelchair elevator was installed to life President Roosevelt’s chair from the ground level to the rear platform of the rail car. The wheelchair lift was removed after his death in 1945.

The Ferdinand Magellan was used frequently by President Franklin Roosevelt, and was the location for the famous ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ photo. As U.S. No. 1, the Ferdinand Magellan served as the Presidential rail car from 1943 until 1958. Today, it resides at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and was designated a National Historic Landmark on 04 Feb 1984.

It is important to remember that Pullman made cars for everyday customers that provided greater comfort. Wooden seats were replaced with upholstered seating. Shades and curtains were provided on windows. Dining cars were introduced as well as observation cars. And as mentioned earlier in this post, sleeping berths were also provided.

However, just like many people fly first class today, or own private planes, Pullman made custom rail cars by special order. As greater numbers of people traveled by train in the late 1800s into the 20th century, the privacy factor – as well as more plush accommodations – became very popular.

For example, Henry Ford purchased a Pullman car in the early 1900s which had four private rooms, including an observation lounge, a dining room, and a fully equipped kitchen. Named Fair Lane, it accommodated eight passengers. Henry Ford and his wife, Clara, made over 400 trips using their private train car before selling it in 1942.

Private train cars have also been featured in films, most notably in the 1956 film GIANT starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson) takes his bride, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) back to his sprawling Texas ranch in his private rail car.

On television in the 1960s, the western adventure series, The Wild Wild West also had a private train, understandable since the premise of the show involved two government secret agents who had to move around a great deal in the American West. Secret Service Agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) not only had a private train car customized for their work, but their own locomotive engine as well.

Named Nimrod, the train had a 4-4-0 engine built in 1875 (called Inyo) and pulled some fancy private rail cars. A character unto itself, Nimrod provided West and Gordon with not only the means to travel where necessary on their secret business for President Ulysses S. Grant, but the necessary equipment for their line of work. Customized features include the standard luxurious decorative measures of a Pullman private and luxurious car, as well as special features such as a functioning fireplace that also served as an emergency exit. The Nimrod also had bedrooms, a kitchen, laboratory, arsenal, and even a luxurious parlor.

Of course, special agents in the American West also needed an additional car for Duke and Cacao – the prized horses of James West, and there were cages for Artemus Gordon’s carrier pigeons who could always be counted on to deliver secret messages.

Of interest to some of you who may be train enthusiasts, the Inyo locomotive used for The Wild Wild West series was also featured in films such as Union Pacific (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Red River (1948), and another John Wayne film, McClintock (1963). Also, for clarification, the pilot episode of The Wild Wild West used a different engine, a 4-6-0 locomotive built in 1891 (which, for accuracy purposes was 15-20 years after the time period when the series takes place).

[Pictured: Pullman Dining Car]

As a writer of historical fiction, it is important to remember how transportation played into the lives of people, as well as what was available to passengers. Whether a character is traveling cross country in a covered wagon, or a stagecoach, with the advent of the railroad greater numbers of people ventured West. Granted, for many their accommodations were not luxurious, but there were sleeper cars in the mid to late 1800s that offered features that made the journey more comfortable. And for some, including the wealthy cattle baron featured in my western time travel, WHISPER IN THE WIND, there were custom private train cars.

I hope you enjoyed this post about the Pullman rail cars and their history. Did I mention I love trains? In fact, not only did I incorporate a private train car for a character in WHISPER IN THE WIND, the heroine takes a ride on a vintage train in the 21st century and soon finds herself transported back in time.

Thanks for stopping by, and the next time you hear a train whistle, or see a film showing the interior of a train, perhaps you will think of the innovative difference and comforts Pullmans have made for people traveling by train over such long distances since the 1860s. ~ AKB


  1. Ashley, I also love trains. As a child, I rode the train several times with my mom as we traveled from California to Oklahoma to visit my grandparents. As a teen, I traveled alone from Texas to visit relatives in California then the next year with my parents. Our daughter Bea and her friend traveled on Amtrac to visit her cousin in NY via Chicago where the friend's aunt lived. As an author, I've collected a large amount of train information for the last quarter of the 1800s. Thanks for igniting happy memories today!

    1. Thank you, Caroline. How exciting for you and Bea. Next time I am in Scotland, I want to tour the highlands on the beautiful Royal Scotsman train where guests have private cabins & dress for dinner, etc. There is also the Royal Canadian Pacific that takes you through the Canadian Rockies. Both are supposed to be very posh, like stepping back in time and are on my "Wish List" to take with husband one of these days.

  2. What an interesting family you have, Ashley.
    This article was filled with such irony mixed in the history of trains. I have never been on a train, but it's something I would love to do. Australia has the Ghan Train that is reported to be as luxurious as the Oriental Express. The train goes up the entire length of Australia all the way to Alice Springs. I have also heard of the Snow Train in Canada that runs across Canada in the middle of winter.
    I love that trains have names, too.
    This was such a delightful blog, Ashley.

    1. Thank you, Sarah J. The train in Australia sounds amazing. I once watched a documentary on PBS with Sir Peter Ustinov on the Orient Express. Fabulous! And he interviewed actors dressed like famous passengers of the past to help portray the amazing history of those who traveled on the train, as well as document the history, sights, sounds, route, opulence and grandeur of the Orient Express itself. I highly recommrnend it. Might be on Youtube. Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Ashley, what a wealth of information about the storied Pullman cars. It's a keeper for future reference.

    I remember riding a train as a little girl with my mom from Minneapolis, where we lived, to her home town of Montgomery, MN. My grandparents lived a short walk from the picturesque old depot, long gone now. As an adult, I always wanted to travel by rail across the west on the Northern Pacific with their famous domed cars for viewing the scenic grandeur, but never got to do that.

    Thanks for sharing your research and bits of your family history. Very interesting!

    1. Thank you, Lyn. I am happy you enjoyed this post. Sad that so many historical buildings like the depot you remember were not preserved. Travel by train, especially the way our parents and ancestors experienced, really must have been exciting. I think about the expansive, pristine landscape they saw, as opposed to today when most cross-country trains go through cities and even industrial areas. Still, there are trains that allow us to see beautiful scenery like the Canadian Rockies, the Grand Canyon, etc., that (I believe) have observation cars for wonderful viewing. We can still go! Trying to talk my husband into making such a journey in the near future. Anyway, thank you again for your kind comments.

  4. I grew up by the Reading Railroad tracks. Oh the stories I could tell of living by those tracks and the things that happened. I rode the train many times into Philadelphia. They were commuter passenger trains. But I loved those trips especially if I could ride backwards. :-)

    But those old Pullman's are fascinating. Now Live near CSX tracks. I hardly ever hear the trains. (One is blowing its horn as I type.) To me, it's a comforting sound.

    I've been in a few of those old restored or preserved Pullman's, and they are amazing! Today's luxury trains for travel lack the gold gilding of yesteryear, but they have beautiful glass lounges to enjoy the picturesque view during the day and the stars at night. Fortunately our air conditioning systems have changed.


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