PULLMAN CAR – History in Motion

Story by Benjamin Lerner
Photography courtesy Hildene, The Lincoln Family Home

In the shadows of Manchester’s breathtaking Hildene estate, an elegant and majestic marvel of late 19th-century design and engineering stands in front of a stately platform in an enchanting forest clearing. Inside, shiny overhead lighting fixtures and gleaming polished wooden walls beautifully exemplify the opulent and splendid stylistic conventions that defined a crucially overlooked period in American history.

Although the 1903 Pullman car, Sunbeam, is certainly a magnificent visual spectacle, the true allure of the treasured railcar lies in its rich and compelling history. In order to fully understand the extent of the Pullman car’s cultural significance – as well as its historical connection to Manchester and Hildene – one must first understand the sequence of events that led to the creation of the Hildene estate and reflect on the social and political developments that were directly influenced by the Pullman Palace Car Company and the Pullman Porters.

Robert Todd Lincoln – Lawyer, Statesman, and Railcar Magnate

Robert Todd Lincoln was a student at Harvard University when he first visited Manchester, Vermont in the summer of 1864. America was standing at a critical crossroads. Nearly two years after his father, President Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, the Civil War continued to rage at full force. As the Confederate and Union armies clashed in the southern states, the future of the American Union hung on a tenuous thread.

After graduating from Harvard in the fall of 1864, Robert enlisted in the Union Army. As a member of General Ulysses S. Grant’s official staff, Robert was present at the historic Appomattox Courthouse Surrender on April 9th, 1865. It was there that General Lee famously capitulated on behalf of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln was tragically assassinated by John Wilkes-Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Less than two months after President Lincoln’s assassination, the last remaining active regiments of the Confederate Army surrendered. Soon after, the Civil War officially ended, and slavery was declared illegal throughout the United States of America. In the aftermath of President Lincoln’s death, Robert Todd Lincoln moved back to Illinois with his brother, Tad, and his mother, Mary Todd.

On February 22, 1867, Robert Todd Lincoln was officially licensed as an attorney in Chicago, and he went on to become a successful lawyer in the state of Illinois for many years, also serving as Town Supervisor of South Chicago from 1876 to 1877. From 1881 to 1885, Lincoln was appointed to the office of Secretary of War and served under Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Lincoln subsequently served as the Minister to Great Britain under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1893. After returning to the field of private law practice, Lincoln began working as general counsel to George Pullman, President and Founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Robert Todd Lincoln Joins the Pullman Company

Even though their fates were not yet tied to one another, it is fascinating to note that on the very same day that Robert Todd Lincoln was licensed as an attorney in Chicago (February 22nd, 1867), the Pullman Palace Car Company was officially incorporated. The company’s original president George Pullman quickly began to hire thousands of Black men to work as porters for his new luxury sleeper train cars, many of whom were newly-freed slaves.

Over the next few decades, The Pullman Palace Car Company continued to expand into one of the most successful businesses in America, and was reincorporated as The Pullman Company in 1900. After the company’s founder and original president, George Pullman, passed away in 1897, Robert Todd Lincoln took over as president of the company. Lincoln held the position until 1911, when he became Chairman of the Board of the Pullman Company.

In 1924, he stepped down from his role as chairman, but remained on the board until his death in 1926. Through his work at the Pullman Company, Lincoln would end up playing a pivotal, albeit indirect roll, in the formation of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Pullman Porters and the American Civil Rights Movement

Although they were underpaid, overworked, and forced to endure the demeaning behavior of the wealthy passengers that they served in the sleeper cars, the Pullman Porters are widely regarded to this day as the founding members of the Black working class. At a time when virtually no corporate employers were willing to hire Black workers, the Pullman Palace Car Company became the largest employer of Black men in the country.

After being poorly compensated for their tireless efforts for years and being denied entrance to the Eugene Debs-led American Railway Union, the Black porters who worked for the Pullman Company began to officially organize in 1909 to advocate for fair wages and equal treatment. Their initial efforts to unionize were stifled by the formation of a farcical company-led union organization, the sole purpose of which was to stall and placate the Black porters while simultaneously working to undermine their interests.

In 1925, the Black porters attempted to organize once more and enlisted the help of a well-known union organizer and political journalist by the name of A. Philip Randolph. Together, they formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and rapidly grew the ranks of the organization to include over half of the porters who worked for the Pullman Company. Although the BSCP’s efforts were thwarted by a series of mass-firings and intimidation tactics on behalf of the Pullman Company for several years, their fortunes shifted after amendments to the Railway Labor Act were passed in 1934 that granted them new federal protections. In 1935, the BSCP began to officially negotiate with the Pullman Company. By 1937, the BSCP and the Pullman Company had reached an agreement that offered the Black porters sizable wage hikes, reduced hours, and compensated overtime.

The BSCP’s landmark success was a watershed moment for civil rights advocacy, which demonstrated the power of organized protest and negotiation. In the aftermath of the BSCP’s victorious resolution, A. Philip Randolph continued to fight for the rights of Black Americans. He formed crucial alliances with other key civil rights figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin and organized several events and marches over the next few decades. His efforts would eventually lead to the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom in March of 1963, which was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have A Dream” speech. The rally is regarded by many as a pivotal turning point in the civil rights movement, which led to the eventual signature of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act under President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and 1965, respectively.

“Manchester and the Mountains”

Several years after Robert Todd Lincoln became President of the Pullman Company, he returned to Manchester to visit his business partner, Edward Isham. Lincoln was an avid golfer, and Isham was the acting president of the newly-opened Ekwanok Golf Club. After a few spirited rounds of golf, Lincoln became wholeheartedly enamored with Manchester and the Ekwanok Golf Club. He then made an offer to purchase a parcel of land from Isham, who owned a sizable property nearby. Although Isham refused the offer, Lincoln eventually purchased 400 acres of Isham’s land after Isham passed away in 1902. In 1903, Lincoln began building up his property at Hildene, and became president of the Ekwanok Golf Club soon thereafter.

While Lincoln was busy overseeing the continued corporate success of the Pullman Company, building his estate at Hildene, and honing his golf skills at the Ekwanok Golf Club, Manchester was in the midst of a tourism boom that had been burgeoning since the middle of the 19th century. According to the Manchester Historical Society’s Curator, Shawn Harrington, Pullman cars played an integral part in the continued development of Manchester’s tourist economy.

“Pullman cars actually brought tourists into Manchester Depot for decades. That’s why it’s so incredible to have a Pullman car in Manchester today in its original restored condition. Back in the latter half of the 19th century, Manchester Village’s economy completely revolved around the ‘Summer Colony.’ The expression ‘Manchester and the Mountains’ was actually coined right around 1900, when Robert Todd Lincoln first returned to Manchester to visit Edward Isham. Manchester developed a reputation amongst East Coast elites as an ideal summer destination. Most of the well-to-do tourists that flocked to Manchester for the summer arrived by train, and they all came up in Pullman Cars.”

The Return of the Pullman Car to Manchester and the “Many Voices” Exhibit

Over 150 years after Robert Todd Lincoln first set foot on Green Mountain soil, the impeccably maintained 412-acre Hildene estate still stands today as a breathtaking material testament to the legacy of the Lincoln family. In 2011, the 1903 Pullman Car, Sunbeam, was brought to Hildene after years of fundraising, tireless searching, and fiercely determined planning on behalf of the Friends of Hildene nonprofit organization.

After the Friends of Hildene discovered the Pullman Car in 2007, the railcar was gloriously restored over a period of several years by master restorationist Bob Willetts and his team of dedicated craftspeople at the Lancaster and Chester Railway Co. in Lancaster, South Carolina. After the restoration was complete, the railcar was driven from South Carolina to Vermont on a specialized flatbed truck. It was paraded through town with great celebration and fanfare and found its new permanent home at the Hildene estate to the extreme delight of tourists and residents alike.

Ten years after the Pullman car first arrived in Manchester, Hildene continues to shed light on the historical significance of the treasured railcar with their multifaceted and immersive “Many Voices” exhibit. According to Pullman Car Lead Docent, Jesse Keel, the aim of the exhibit is to prompt and encourage civil discourse by providing an honest and unbiased look at the history of the Pullman Company through a variety of different perspectives and voices. “I think it’s incredibly fitting that the ‘Many Voices’ exhibit is on a platform, because it truly has become a platform for conversation.”

The Pullman Car is stationed at a beautiful railway platform in the woods with the “Many Voices” exhibit on its wall. There are four voices: The Pullman Company which includes George Pullman and Robert Todd Lincoln, the Black Pullman Porters, the High Society passengers who rode on the Pullman Cars in the early 20th century, and “We” the people. Keel notes, “We want people to be able to engage in constructive discussions with one another regarding the complex history of this beautiful artifact. We have a large blackboard where people respond to each other with comments. We want to give people the opportunity to express themselves and learn from each other. When we come across historical information that is difficult to process and understand, the question is always, ‘How do we approach this?’ We conclude that the best way to do it is to let the facts speak for themselves. The Pullman Car is a beautiful, paradoxical, and complicated part of history. It’s part of Manchester’s history, Hildene’s history, and America’s history. We think it’s important to learn from the history and then to engage in civil discourse that can help us to collectively move forward towards a better future.”