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Before private jets, there were luxurious private train cars

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Mobile mini mansions

The interior of Sunbeam.
Photo by Stephen Hussar.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

From private suites on Emirates Airlines to Alessi-designed tableware on Delta, airlines constantly try to offer new levels of luxury to those who want to shell out the cash for a first-class ticket.

But outlandish first-class travel is nothing new. Before air travel, the Cunard and the White Star Lines made headlines with new levels of luxury on the seas for wealthy Americans journeying to Europe.

And for those traveling on railroads? That’s where George Pullman—and his eponymous Pullman Company—came in.

“George Pullman by no means invented the passenger or sleeping car, but he perfected it,” says Bruce White, Pullman and transportation lead at Hildene.

Founded in 1867, the Chicago-based Pullman Company produced a range of railroad car types, from dining cars and parlor cars to freight cars.

Sunbeam at Hildene.
Photo by Stephen Hussar.

“Over time, the company was shipping cars all over the country—and internationally,” says White. “At the turn of the 20th century, they were they largest manufacturing company, of any kind, in the world.”

Pullman offered more than just a standard railroad passenger experience. He wanted to cater to his high-end clients with luxurious, hotel-like accommodations.

“Pullman often joked that he ran the largest hotel in America,” says Robert Lettenberger, education director at the National Railroad Museum. “At its peak, he had upwards of 100,000 guests. The only difference between him and Conrad Hilton was that every night, Pullman’s ‘hotel’ moved to a different location!”

While he made a variety of cars with high-end finishes, the Pullman Company also became known as a purveyor of private rail cars, an accommodation of choice for the super wealthy who wanted privacy and comfort.

A barber’s chair in the Pullman Palace Car. Get a load of that domed ceiling!
Ullstein bild via Getty Images.

These private cars, which attached to commercial passenger trains, were rolling mini mansions. Lettenberger says the layout followed a general pattern: The back of the car had an observation deck followed by a parlor. The parlor connected to a cluster of staterooms. A dining room usually followed the staterooms, and beyond the dining room, at the back of the car, were service areas like a pantry and galley.

The cars would also be staffed by a team of three people, including a steward, chef, and potentially a personal assistant.

“Private cars would generally sleep eight to 12 people,” says Lettenberger. “The staterooms could have queen-sized beds, and they often opened to bathrooms with things like marble showers and highly polished metal sinks.”

Customization options were seemingly limitless. “The Chicago and Northwestern railway—another company that produce private cars—engineered a special frame that created a sunken lounge area and a 15-foot-high ceiling,” says Lettenberger.

Writer Charles Clegg and his partner Lucius Beebee had a private Pullman car with a marble fireplace in the lounge, and banker Darius O. Mills had a car with custom wood paneling. The exterior of Mills’s car had a vibrant yellow, brown, red, and dark-green color scheme to make it stand out amongst the rest.

In 1920, Henry Ford commissioned Fair Lane, an 88-foot-long steel car. “By the mid-to-late 1910s, it wasn’t possible for Ford to travel without being recognized during his travels,” says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford. “He had traveled in the cars of friends before, but this was the first time he commissioned his own car.”

The dining room of Fair Lane.
From the collections of The Henry Ford.

The car’s interiors were designed by Sidney Houghton, who also worked on Ford’s house—also named Fair Lane—and his yacht. The car played host to many of Ford’s friends like Thomas Edison.

There may have been no more ostentatious car than the P.P.C.—The Pullman Palace Car, owned by Pullman and his company. “It’s reported that Pullman employed 15 wood carvers to complete the various carvings and moldings,” says Lettenberger. “Another set of artists did the plasterwork. The metal fitting, the lamps, the plumbing, were gold plated.”

The parlor of the Pullman Palace Car.
ullstein bild via Getty Images

While some commissioned and owned their own private cars, many—most, even—chose to rent “executive charter” cars instead. Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, who served as president of the Pullman company from 1897 to 1911, didn’t even have his own car. He would often charter specific cars for his own use.

On the grounds of Hildene—the Lincoln family home in Manchester, Vermont—the car Sunbeam is on display for visitors to see.

Originally completed in 1888, the car was notably used by President William McKinley from until his death in 1901. “When it first came off the line, the car was a 10-section luxury car,” explains White. “There was a drawing room, smoking room, dining area, and then it had sleepers in each section.”

What’s on view today isn’t exactly the car that President McKinley used. Sunbeam was retrofitted in 1903 to be a more general executive charter car. The 72-foot-long and 10-foot-wide car shed its 10-room layout for a seven-room configuration which had sleeping accommodation for up to 18 people.

“Sunbeam’s fittings are typical of the more “progressive era” of car design,” says White. “During the Gilded Age, interiors were much more elaborate. In the 20th century, car design became paired down.”

The car features Cuban mahogany, along with brass light fixtures, zinc sinks, and rich upholstery. “Sunbeam cost $20,000 to manufacture in the 19th century,” adds White. “That translates to roughly $800,000 to $1 million in today’s currency. They were the private jets of their era.”

A stateroom in Sunbeam.
Photo by Stephen Hussar.

The car features Cuban mahogany, along with brass light fixtures, zinc sinks, and rich upholstery. “Sunbeam cost $20,000 to manufacture in the 19th century,” adds White. “That translates to roughly $800,000 to $1 million in today’s currency. They were the private jets of their era.”

Similarly, these cars would also take years to produce. Lettenberger says it’s not uncommon to hear of a car taking up to four years to be completed.

“The production expense also didn’t include furnishings. After spending on the car, you’d then have to account for furniture, cutlery, crystal, kitchen ware, and other housewares—tacking on thousands to the end of the bill.”

A stateroom in the Pullman Palace Car.
ullstein bild via Getty Images

Like many objects of extravagance and wealth from the turn of the 20th century, the halcyon days of the private car was short lived. “There were probably never more than 2,000 private cars operating at any one time,” says Lettenberger. “The stock market crash of 1929 combined with World War II spelled the end of the private rail car. And that’s not even mentioning the rise of air travel.”

However, the world of private rail travel still lives on through the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, which has a database of restored period cars available for hire. And yes, Amtrak still supports attaching a private car to the end of a commercial train. All you need to do is charter a car, find a train to attach to, and you’ll be on your way to experiencing travel as it once was.