The Pullman Spirit Lives On
Pullman: For all but the very young, the name conjures up visions of the classic age of rail travel when the Pullman Company arguably one of the icons of American entrepreneurialism built and operated nearly ten thousand railroad sleeping cars that roamed virtually everywhere on the North American railroad map. In its heyday in the 1920s, Pullman was a traveling hotel of gargantuan proportions. Its sleeping cars hosted 50,000 guests each night, twenty times the capacity of the Chicago Hilton Hotel (then the worlds largest).
Pullman built the cars it operated, in a company town on the south fringe of Chicago. For decades at the end of the 19th Century, rail passenger cars were of wood construction, often ornately decorated. However in the early 1900s, increasing concerns for passenger safety led to pressures for all-steel passenger rolling stock. Pullman built a prototype steel car in 1907, and full production began in 1910. In the quarter-century following the pioneer Carnegie of 1910 came 8,000 standard heavyweight steel sleeping cars. Fully half of these sleepers were of the 12 open-section, one drawing room configuration, both beloved and detested in American folklore.
The standard 12-1 sleeping car consisted of 12 pairs of facing seats that converted for nighttime use into lower berths. Corresponding upper berths folded down from the upper side walls, and the 24 sleeping berths thus created were concealed from the central aisle by heavy green curtains. For the more affluent, a single enclosed drawing room provided private accommodation for up to three additional passengers. Separate lounges and toilet facilities for men and women at each end of the car were also provided.
One of the 12-1 sleepers built in 1910 -- that landmark first year of production -- was the Aldham. Finished in Pullman's dark olive green livery, Aldham roamed North America for over three decades. It witnessed the zenith of rail travel in the teens and twenties, the tough times of the Great Depression, and the sudden resurgence in transportation necessitated by World War II.
In fact, it was the war effort that saw Canadian National Railways purchase 44 sleeping cars from Pullman in 1941-42 for use as Armed Forces Sleepers. The drawing rooms disappeared and the interiors were reconfigured to 18 open sections, for troop movements. Aldham joined the CNR fleet in December 1942, and became CNR No. 2713. With the end of hostilities in 1945, the car continued in Colonist service, providing basic and economical accommodation to returning servicemen and those choosing to settle in Canada after the turmoil of war.
With return to normalcy, the once-frantic pace of rail travel began a serious decline in the late 1940s and 1950s. The private automobile became the accepted mode of travel for middle-income North Americans. Airlines seized a growing share of the travel pie. Train travel began a death spiral from which it would never recover.
The Pullman Company, once a virtual monopoly in the overnight sleeping car business, sold its operating division to a consortium of 57 railroads in 1947. In Canada, the railroads themselves operated the majority of sleeping car lines. Survival for all, if only for a short period, became dependent upon new streamlined trains, with sleeping cars offering private room-type accommodations in "modern" surroundings.
The standard heavyweight sleeping cars, with their open-section sleeping arrangements, were the first casualties. They were scrapped by the thousands. A fortunate few were modernized, or cascaded down to Company Service status.
So it was in December 1956 that Colonist Car 2713 was gutted to its very walls, reconfigured as a rolling classroom, and turned out as No. 15025. In this guise, as a Rule Instruction Car, No. 15025 traveled the Canadian National system until 1982, literally a school-on-wheels for CNR's operating department employees.
For car 15025/2713/Aldham, a renaissance began in 1983 when it was sold by CNR to a private individual who had the foresight to appreciate the cars tradition, and the potential it offered as a basis for recreating an elegantly appointed example of the golden age of rail travel.
Today, nearly a century later, the essential shell of the Pullman-built sleeping car remains. But its structure has been strengthened, its profile altered, its mechanical and electrical systems reconfigured and updated, and its interior completely redesigned, in an authentic representation of a private railway car of the 1920s.
Today, the car boasts three luxury staterooms for up to six guests, a welcoming dining room, full kitchen, washrooms, and accommodations for a crew of two. A spacious lounge at the rear of the car gives access to a newly created observation platform. African and Honduran mahogany paneling graces the interior spaces, highlighted by exotic inlayed marquetry panels in every room. Lighting fixtures, interior hardware, dining car china and silverware, and linen and blankets, have all been carefully selected to represent accurately the elegance of early Twentieth Century rail travel.
And today, the car appropriately named Pullman Spirit is the only period railway car available for private charter in Canada, providing luxury land cruises across the country on the VIA Rail network and other smaller railways. Picture yourself and your guests enjoying gourmet meals in the dining room, relaxing in the lounge or "outdoors" on the observation platform, or sleeping the night away to the muffled rumble of steel wheels on steel rails. This is an unparalleled adventure that can truly transport you back to a time when travel by train was indeed a Great Event.
Written By: James A. Brown