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The Life of the Pullman Porter
By Stewart H. Holbrook
Copyright, 1947 by Crown Publishers, Inc.
One October evening in 1937 a stunning blonde about thirty years old engaged a Pullman compartment
on a Great Northern train leving Portland Oregon, for Seattle. She was tall and graceful, modishly dressed
in dark blue, right up to her earrings; and the porter in her car, a man we will call Johnson for that was not
his name, still thinks she was the handsomes woman he has ever seen. Nor was her luggage, he recalls,
met with everyday. It was handmade to the last stitch and rivet.
An hour or so later, as the train was leaving Kelso, Washington, the lady rang for Porter Johnson and then
handed him a letter in a pale blue envelope. "I want you to be sure," she said with emphasis, "to mail this
at Aberdeen - and nowhere else." She gave him a quarter.
Porter Johnson told the woman, truthfully, that the train did not go to or even near Aberdeen, a seacoast
town. She appeared stunned for a moment, a look of desparation hardened her face. She was obviously,
the porter now came to see, in a highly nervous state. Her small hand shook. "This letter," she said, "simply
must be mailed in Aberdeen - and nowhere else - by tomorrow morning." Saying which, she put a
twenty-dollar bill in Porter Johnson's hand. "Can't you arrange it somehow?" she pleaded. "It's almost a
matter - a matter of life and death." Porter Johnson, who like most of his craft was and is a man of quick
thinking and practically unlimited resources, considered hard for a moment, then told the blonde that he
thought he could handle the matter. At Centralia, as the porter knew, his Great Northern train (a pooled
train with the NP and UP) would stop briefly for water and exchange of passengers, mail, and express.
Centralia was a juction point from which a Northern Pacific local would depart for Aberdeen as soon as the
Great Northern main-line train had discharged its passengers. The porter knew that the two-car local did not
carry a Pullman or a porter.
At the exact moment Jim Hill's train of cars came to a stop that rainy night in Centralia, Porter Johnson hit
the long platform and when he hit he was running like the wind. He dashed forward almost the full length of
his train, crossed over to the NP tracks and peered through the gloom at the local's conductor. Luck had it
that he was a man with whom Johnson had run in the past. Johnson handed him the pale blue letter and a
one-dollar bill - a five would have looked suspicious - and told the conductor about mailing it in Aberdeen.
Then he hurried back to his own train and car.
So far as Porter Johnson knows, the letter was mailed late that night in Aberdeen, and today, he says, he
would give at least half of that twenty-dollar bill to know what it was all about. He has never since seen
the lady in blue.
Things like the lady and the letter happen often in the lives of the nine thousand Pullman porters who ride
up and down and across the country every day and night of the year. Small adventure comes to them in
plenty, over the clicking rails, and sometimes they have really big moments - like finding $75,000 in jewelery
scattered around in a car, or opening door of a drawing room at command of federal officers who want to
talk to the occupant, an inoffensive little man who, it turns out, has murder on his hands and fifty thousand
dollars in his suitcase.
But Pullman porters are the tightest-lipped of all men, and the travelling public knows little more of their lives
and work than it does of the people of Mars. Strange bits of drama flit past their terribly keen if guarded
vision. One of them told me it is like getting a ten-second flash of every movie ever filmed. And they have
lives of their own. People who accept the porter as something that comes with the car, seem not to suspect
that the porter has his special likes, his pet peeves, his worries, joys, and triumphs.
It is regrettable, as has been said, that the name of the first Pullman porter isn't known. The great Chicago
fire of 1871 destroyed all of the early records of the Pullman Company, and not even a year the first porter
took over is certain, though it was probably in 1867 and it is also probable that the porter was a well trained
ex-slave. It may well have been a Negro from Georgia or the Carolinas, for those states have long been
favorite recruiting grounds of the Pullman Company. More porters come from those states than from any
The Pullman porter is selected with discrimination and is also carefully trained. Many families now have their third generation of porters on the road, for occupation tend to become hereditary and Pullman employees stand high in any negro community. Applicants are usually vouched for by old and trusted porters, and the company then scans their records. The next step is training. The rookie porter is sent to school in one of the larger railroad centers where the Pullman Company has a car sidetracked for a schoolroom. Here in charge of a veteran the rookie learns the proper method of folding and putting away blankets, of making berths. He is taught that a sheet, towel, or pillow slip once unfolded cannot be used again; it may be clean, yet technically it is soiled and must go to the laundry. He goes through the motions of making up and making down beds. He is shown how the heating and air-conditioning controls operate. He is taught how to wake passengers - no noise, not even a knock at the edge of the berth, but merely a shake of the curtains from the outside. Meanwhile, from the wise old heads who instruct him, the rookie learns a good deal about the habits of passengers whom he will meet.
Now comes an actual trip, though still under the eye of an experienced porter. The rookie will doubtly make several of these trial trips, and then, one night, he makes the trip out alone. If all goes well, or even pretty well, he is on the way to being a Pullman porter, and once he is such, he is more often than not set in the occupation he will follow the rest of his life. Few Pullman porters are discharged. Mosr are retired for age between 20 to 40 years of service. Most new openings are made when ambitious porters leave to go to college or into business for themselves.
It is still a firmly entrenched notion of American travelers that Pullman porters are paid almost nothing in wages. Thirty years ago this notion had a baisis of fact; base pay was around $20 a month. In 1937 things started to improve when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters got the company to agree to a scale ranging from a minimum of $89.50 per month to $112.50 for a porter running-in-charge, that is, one who acts as porter and also as Pullman Conductor of his car. Since 1937 the rates have been increased again.
For the first ten years the porter buys his own uniforms, after which the company pays for them. The porter buys the polish used on passengers' shoes. For meals he ordinarily takes with him at least one lunch put up at home, eating this with coffee in the diner. On long runs he eats at odd times in the diner, paying approximately one-half the regular tariff.
What a porter recieves in tips is pretty much a matter between God and himself. Half the time the porter doesn't know what his tips amount to. He just knows they are good, medium, or bad. Porters will lie with clear concience about tips. It isn't hard to understand why. A ten-year-service man who by his good work has made a certain run worth, say, a monthly average of $100 in tips, isn't prone to be bragging about it. He more probably appear altogether discouraged about the whole business and swear that his tips never run to more than $45 a month. He doesn't want some eleven-year-service man, who thus ranks him, bumping him off his well-tilled run.
It works the other way, too. Given a run that proves poor in tips, an up-and-coming man will try to do something about it. Returning to a Pullman dormitory fresh from his run, he'll reach deep into his pocket and come up with a great handful of change - halves, quarters (and silver dollars west of Chicago) - and let the boys feast their eyes. He will brag to heaven that he makes eight runs a month and that the take is never less than $12 a run. It's his bunco game to get rid of a poor run, to tempt some senior porter to bump him. The gag is seldom successful, I am told, unless played for a long time by a consummate actor.
It is patently impossible to say what an average porter's tip amount to in a year. It is know that in many parts of the South tips run to no more than $20 a month. There are certain overnight runs in New England worth no more than $45 a month in summer, $35 in winter. the run into Upper Michigan is no better. And in former days of the Nickel Plate road had such a poor reputation for tips that porters tell how they requested to be put on the Extra List, rather than to run Regular on the Plate.
At the other end of the line is the unquestioned $200 and better average monthly (in normal times) by the star veterans on the Twentieth Century Limited, the Broadway Limited, and Santa Fe Chief and several other extra-fare trains. These are the 24-carat runs, held for many years by the same men. Twenty years on the Century is not unusual for a porter.
Porters appear to have different and strongly help opinions about tipping, but seem in agreement on certain things. For instance: They can usually gauge a man's tip before they get it. Of women travellers they can tell nothing at all until the tip is in hand. The ladies are highly erratic tippers; on the whole they tip better than men, and often give tips that are all out of proportion to the service rendered. All foreigners are poor tippers, the English the worst of the lot. New England natives haven't a very high reputation for tips, although regular trippers on the New Haven are said to be consistent tippers and the amount adds up well in a year. Prosperous show folk are excellent tippers and they also demand more attention than anyone else. The late George Cohan was a legendary tipper. So is Jack Dempsey, the ex-fighter. The late Calvin Coolidge was a consistant tipper, and his tip never varied. It was always fifteen cents.
More than one porter has been remembered in the will of some much-traveled man. Diamond Jim Brady left $2,500 to a favorite porter. A wealthy Chicagoan left $3,000 for the purpose of putting the son of a porter through medical college. Not long ago a group of hollywood people chipped in to buy their favorite Pullman maid a colossal automobile.
Possible the pet aversions of all Pullman porters are professional baseball players, most of whom, so one intelligent porter has said, are vulgar and uncouth youths. "They tear up the linen," he relates, "destroy pillows in their adolescent horseplay, and abuse every piece of equipment aboard. Cattle cars would be too good for a majority of professional baseball players."
The favorites of porters are the professional traveling men, the so-called drummers. They know good service and how to appreciate it. They are usually reasonable in all things and make little trouble. their tips aren't the largest, but the porter can always bank on a tip and know it will be the regulation amount. Among the drummers, however, as among other classes of travelers, is a pseudo-sophistocated male who addresses all porters as "George" which he seems to believe is an extremely witty reminder of George Mortimer Pullman.
A porters life is no life of ease. It calls for a rugged constitution, Hours are irregular. Wakefulness and sleep come in batches. Meals are usually eated hurriedly. Making down a berth is not play. There is much baggage to handle. And when all of the passengers have departed, the porter has much work to do. He also works under rigid discipline, and often has to contend with impossible people. There is the man, or woman, who goes to bed in a berth smoking a cigarette; the loudmouthed male who wants to sit talking in the washroom until two in the morning; the fellow - called a "whitewasher" - who spreads a coat of lather over the men's wash basins and leaves it there; the old woman, of either sex, who rings and rings the bell at every hour of the day and night, to say that the car is too warm, too cold, too drafty, despite the fact that today's Pullman's are for the most part air-conditioned and the temperatures kept steady by automatic control. Worst of all, perhaps, is the fellow who whistles, as if for a dog, to attract the porter's attention.
Yet the Pullman porter has an interesting life, not to say a colorful, or even a romantic one. Young colored boys and many older ones look at the porter as tops in everything desirable in the Negro world. He is the most traveled of his race. He knows the ways of the world. He is a knight of the road. In time, if he has the ability as well as the ambition, he leaves the sleeping car for better things. If he stays on, his children are likely to have better things, anyways.
In riding a Pullman for twenty years or more, a lot can happen to a porter and his charges. Porters have assisted at births, deaths, even marriages. They have been in wrecks and in holdups. A few have become heroes. There was Oscar J. Daniels, the only porter for whom a Pullman car was named.
On June 16, 1925, Porter Daniels was in charge of the Sirocco, a sleeper assigned to one of the Eastern lines. When the train was derailed by a washout, the Sirocco fell parallel with and close to the engine. The door nearest the locomotive was blown open and a cloud of scalding steam billowed into the Pullman. Passengers screamed. Porter Daniels ran through the hot vapor and slammed the door shut. Then he fell unconsious. He died from his terrible burns, but his passengers' lives had been saved.
There was heroic John W. Blair on ill-fated No. 4 of the St. Paul and Duluth, in charge of the chair car. The day was September 1, 1894, the day Hinckley and other towns of eastern Minnesota were destroyed in one of the greatest fires of all time.
Heading south from Duluth, Number 4 soon ran into a land covered with smoke and alight with flame. As it approached Hinckley village, Engineer Jim Root saw the town was going up in billows of fire. He stopped, took aboard scores of fleeing citizens, then reversed the lever and the train started backing toward Skunk Lake, a mudhole six miles to the rear.
It was a run through hell. Flames lined the tracks. Ties started to smolder, then to burn. Paint on the outside of the coaches began to run; and presently the paint on the inside was running too. Porter Blair calmed the panic-stricken passengers. He stood by the water tank wetting towels and passing them to his charges to wrap around around their heads. The coach lamps, which had been lighted, now began to blow up from explosions, apparently of gas generated by the forest fire, which also broke almost every window in the train. Blair began to talk to the few children, dampened their heads, had them lie flat on the floor. A big man, evidently a religious fanatic, tore into the car, his eyes popping. "We are all going to heaven together," he shouted. Blair grabbed and held him, telling him to be quiet, that all would be well.
Just before the train arrived at Skunk Lake, the cars themselves began to burn freely, and Blair took down the fire extinguisher - plain water affair - and sprayed passengers lying on the floor, putting out fires that were burning women's hair off their heads. When the train at last stopped, Blair, assisted by several passengers and train crew, saw that the women and kids were put off first, then he got down, his cloths afire, his hair and eyebrows singed, and crawled into the scum of Skunk Lake along with three hundred others. Four hundred and eighteen Minnesotans died that terrible afternoon, though not all of their bodies could be identified.
It is good to report that Negro Porter Blairs noble efforts were not forgotten. A little later, in St. Paul, survivors of the fire and other people staged a party at which Blair was honored by the presentation of a handsome badge "of beautiful design, the face being engraved with the picture of a burning train." To Blair also went a fine gold watch, presented by "The St. Paul and Duluth R.R. Co. for gallant and faithful discharge of duty on Limited Train No. 4, in Forest Fires, Sept 1, 1894."
A porter on the Union Pacific had a hand in the taking of Roy Gardiner, the notorious outlaw. All porters keep an eye out for thieves and for professional gamblers. Small adventures are common. They always just happen and are never expected. There is more of the quality of certainty about finding things, valuable things, left behind by heedless passengers. It is a fact that passengers will and do leave almost everything one could think of behind them in Pullman cars. In company with a Pullman inspector I once got aboard a Santa Fe Chief in the Chicago yards right after the passengers had left. In the train we found the following: one new and expensive mink coat, lady's; two golf bags complete with clubs; one costly cowhide bag; four powder compacts, one quite expensive; one small diamond ring; two pairs of cuff links; one quart bottle nearly full of bonded rye; and fourteen copies of Variety, a weekly periodical of the world of show business.
Lost and found goods are turned in at the nearest Pullman office. The company prides itself on it's record of finding owners. A sample of the service occured in the spring of 1939, when a porter at the end of his run in Chicago found a platinum watch set with diamonds in the ladies' room of his car. Through it's markings, plus a lot of hard work and the assistance of the jeweler who had made it, the watch was returned three weeks later to it's owner, who apparently had never missed it.
One day in 1923 Porter J.T. McArthur, on an Ohio run, discovered enough stuff in his car to jolt him out of his usual self-control. Going through the sleeper at the end of his run, he found: one pearl necklace, one diamond necklace, one bar pin with 14 diamonds, one set of earrings, green, with pearls, one set of gold and pearl cuff links, one wrist watch, platinum, and three platinum rings. The stuff was later valued by an expert at $75,000. Porter McArthur thought for sure he had stumbled onto a batch of goods so "hot" that the thieves did not dare to leave the train with it. Scooped up, and taken to the Pullman office at high speed, they were retrieved the next day by the rightful owner who, of course, was a woman. She said she had simply forgotten them.
On a June day in 1929 Porter Pierson found a chamois bag in a drawing room. It held $400,000 worth of jewelery, said to have been the largest find ever made in a Pullman. The owner, a woman, was located. She said she thought she had left the bag in a stateroom of a ship from Europe. Anyway, she gave Pierson a $100 reward.
The list of sizeable finds seems endless. Every day in a week, the Pullman company estimates, passengers leave goods to the total value of $5,000 in Pullman cars. Every effort is made to find the owners. Unclaimed goods are held for two years, then returned to the finders. Incidentally, immediate dismissal follows discovery that a porter has not reported an article found.
In the folklore that has grown up around porters is the belief that they have an elaborate sign language by which they communicate with each other as trains pass in opposite directions. The only bit of sign language one reporter was able to unearth has to do with the hotel guide-book that appears in a rack at the men's end of a sleeper. The male reader will have seen it often, a fat volume with a bright red cover. Well, if this book is held up to a window, flat against the glass, when two trains are passing, it means that a Pullman inspector, or spotter, is somewhere about, and the porter so warned had best see that his car is in fine condition.
Porters never lack for topics of conversation. Much of the talk takes place in the Pullman dormitories maintained by the company in all of the large terminals. Here in the barracks, between runs, porters discuss the ups and downs and exciting moments aboard a sleeping car. The talkfests are known in the trade as the Baker Heater League, so-called from the now obsolete type of heating apparatus once used in Pullmans,
In talk among themselves porters refer to a "boxcar" by which they mean the new type of all-room Pullmans.
An observation car is a "buggy". A "tin can" is a buffet car. A "battleship" is the oldline 16-section sleeper. Like mariners with ships, porters have favorite cars, and then there are jinx car, bad luck for anyone. And, being Negros and having a sense of humor, perhaps to alleviate their status as partial citizens of the Unites States, they are keen for funny happenings to porters.
There was that night when Porter Johnnie Jones, running on the Pennsylvania out of New York, collected all of the shoes in his car and took them into the next Pullman where he might shine them and also talk with Porter Jackson, during the lonely morning hours. This was, of course, strictly against the rules, but the two porters did have a right good visit and did an excellent job of shining. When Porter Jones, loaded with shoes, started to return to his own car, it wasn't there. Sudden emergency orders had cut out his car and held it for inclusion in a second section of the same train. It was quite embarassing for Porter Jones, to say nothing of his shoeless passengers. The colored boys still mention it now and then in the Pullman dormitories.
Another favorite story of the Baker Heater League concerns a Porter Johnson, who in 1908 was in charge of a car on the Northern Pacific running between St. Paul and Seattle. Johnson left St. Paul on November 5, in the sleeper Umpyna, deadheading to Butte, where he arrived on the 7th and learned he was to remain there overnight. So, well content with the layover, he ate his supper, made up a berth in the empty Umpyna, and went to bed about eleven o'clock. Sometime in the night Porter Johnson awoke to find his car was in motion. This did not immediately worry him, for he believed, naturally enough from long experience, that for some reason the yard crew was shifting his car to another track. But he put up the shade and looked out. It was still dark, but he came to the conclusion he was moving pretty fast, far too fast for yard switching, and he also saw what looked to be a small depot flash past.
"I lighted my lantern," said Porter Johnson in his report to the Pullman company, "and began to ascertain the situation of things. Went to front end of car and found nothing in front of me, no signals or anything. So I says to myself, "this is queer railroading", and went to the other end of the car and found the standard car Kooskia hooked onto me. I went through the Kooskia, and found no porter or anybody else aboard, and kept on to the rear vestibule and found it the same as front of my car Umpyna. Then I turned white..."
Porter Johnson thought it was time he did something. His two-car engineless train was doing, he calculated, 75 miles per hour. He grabbed the brakes and began turning the ratchet. It didn't seem to do any good at all. "So," he reported later, "I then ran to the front end of my car and saw men piling ties and putting rail across the tracks in order to ditch me, not knowing anybody was aboard. But me and my two cars was too slick for that game and broke the rail in two pieces and shoved the ties ahead nearly two miles, knocking down all the switches. The Butte and Anaconda freight had just pulled in below Durant, and they threw open their switch, which put me on their road and at the same time administering to me an upgrade. While otherwise I would have kept on the NP down grade to four miles deyond Durant, and as Number 2 Northcoat Limited was late, saved me from slapping them square in the mouth. So I am still alive but am awful scared. Cause of the runaway, brakes being released by some unknown person in the yards. They telegraphed all along the line to look out for runaway cars, but I was beating all telegraphic communications time."
Porter Johnson and the runaway at Butte is from the record. There is no record, only folklore, concerning the most terrific Pullman porter who ever made down a berth. He was Daddy Joe. No living porter claims ever to have seen him, but a few of the older veterans vow they once knew somebody who had seen Daddy Joe in the flesh. He was so tall, this dusky Daddy Joe, and so strong, that he commonly stood in the car aisle, on the floor, and let down a upper with each hand; then he made down both uppers and lowers simultaneously. And when Daddy Joe was really in a hurry, the thud and clatters of uppers sounded like a giant walking down stairs.
Once, on the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, Daddy Joe's sleeping car and all the train were surrounded by the rising waters of the river. There was panic in the Pullman, with passengers screaming and trying to get out the doors in order to drown in the open rather than in the car. Daddy Joe rose noble to the emergency. He stood up tall on his long legs and delivered such a powerful oration that the passengers were soothed. They took their seats again. The waters fell and the train proceeded to Memphis, arriving four hours and thirty five minutes late, which was the exact time consumed by Daddy Joe's sermon.
Once, on the Central Pacific, it was just as tough. Hostile Indians attacked the train at a water tank. Daddy Joe climbed on top of his car - a notable infringement of Pullman regulations - and there harangued redskins in their own tongue, dazing them into inaction by the sonorous periods of his great voice, which was like thunder. Then Daddy Joe came down. He tossed a pretty brown Pullman blanket to each of the seven chiefs and subschiefs in the attacking party, gave them his blessing, and the train rolled on in safety to Salt Lake City.
The boys don't talk about him much anymore, but they used to, and Daddy Joe came down through the years and on every railroad in the country performed his wonderous feats. Sometimes, it appears, he was known as Daddy Henry, but Joe or Henry, he was always master of the situation and never failed to bring his charges unscathed through fire, hurricane, high water, Indians, or robbers. "We don't get no tips till the end of the run," Daddy Joe always said. It is a piece of revealing folklore because it always has the porter bending his every energy, even risking his life to save his passenger. And always at the end is the worldly-wise payoff - the part about tips.
Among porters, as among passengers, there long ago grew up the legend that the marvellous names of Pullman cars were thought up by Florence Pullman, daughter of the founder of the company. Rumors, then newspaper items, appeared to say that Miss Pullman recieved one hundred dollars (sometimes it was a thousand dollars) for each name she selected. This pleasent story has been repeatedly denied by the company which no longer pays it any heed when it reappears, as it does every little while. The Pullman Company, indeed, has stated with brutal frankness that Miss Pullman never named so much as one car.
From almost the beginning Pullman cars were named by a committee of company officials. At first it was thought that Pullmans, like ships, should have feminine names, and many were so christened. Then place names became quite a factor. Great men must also be honored, especially railroad officials, soldiers, sailors, statesmen. Then came a line of mountains and rivers and capes. The sometimes difficult classical names of ancient times were not in use until Pullman acquired the Wagner Palace Car Company, it's chief competitor, and discovered that some three hundred of the Wagner cars bore names duplicated in the Pullmans. There must be new names, and at once.
Richmond Dean, a vice-president of the Pullman, had an inspiration. Taking a corps of clerks, he moved in a body to the Chicago Public Library and there delved into the history and the mythology of Greece and Rome. Within twenty-four hours, some of the most beautiful, and also some of the biggest mouthfuls, of names were ready for the newly acquired cars - names ranging from Circe and Sibyl to Archimedes and Belisarius.
In later years the company found it convenient to adopt names in a series, so that the name would denote a certain type of car. This plan has been continued. Compartment and drawing room cars have been named for poets, dramatists, and authors. The Lake, Camp, and Fort cars are all of one sort - ten sections, drawing room and two compartments. The Saints and Macs contain twelve sections and a drawing room. There is a series of ten-sections-plus-two-drawing-room cars named Point Alexander, Point Bonita and so on. The parlor cars of the Congressional Limited, running on the Pennsylvania between New York and Washington were named after signers of the Declaration, and prominent members of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention - Caesar Rodney, Charles Carrol, Roger Sherman, et al. The President series is another type of compartment and drawing-room car with a special interior finish.
In recent years cars have been named for cities and landmarks along a specific railroad; and there is the Silver series, such as Silver Star, Silver Bay, Silver Peak, and Silver Stream, made for Santa Fe railroad's California Limited. The Southern Pacific has a series named Sunset Beach, Sunset Cape, Sunset Heights and so on.
"Certain rules," says a Pullman statement sternly, "Have been adopted by the committee on nomenclature regarding the naming of types of cars with the object of indicating, without reference to book or catalog, the character of the car." This is all very well, but I for one prefer to think of Miss Florence Pullman, a copy of Shelley in one hand, gazing out the window at the glistening waters of Lake Michigan, a faraway look in her eyes, earning an honest dollar by applying the name of some Aegean god to a new car that is waiting, shining yet nameless, on the factory sidetracks in Pullman, Illinois.