A long history of service: The Sunbeam once carried President McKinley; later, it carried reporters covering Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign, and in 1945 it was part of FDR’s funeral train.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson
On June 4, 2011, cheering crowds lined the streets of Manchester, Vermont, to welcome a long-awaited new arrival. The guest of honor wasn’t a politician or a beauty queen, but a beauty nonetheless: a green Pullman Palace railroad car shipped to Manchester from South Carolina on two flatbed trucks. The 72-foot car, christened Sunbeam, touted as the finest example of a restored wooden Pullman car in the world, would soon complete its thousand-mile journey to go on permanent display at the custom-built “station” on the grounds of Hildene, once the home of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only son of President Abraham Lincoln to survive to adulthood.
It was a different journey north that first brought a young Robert Todd Lincoln to Vermont in 1864: With his mother and brother in tow, he was escaping from Washington’s brutal summer heat. He enjoyed his Vermont sojourn enough that he would return four decades later, in 1903, to build Hildene as his family’s summer home; it was completed two years later. Set amid the rolling landscape of the Taconic Range and the Green Mountains, the property’s beauty and tranquility provided a welcome respite from the corporate world of Chicago, where Lincoln served as general counsel, president, and finally chairman of the board of the Pullman Palace Car Company from 1897 until just before his death, at Hildene, in 1926—a period that saw the firm rise to become the largest manufacturer in the world.
Hildene’s Sunbeam car highlights the fruits of Lincoln’s career, but it also offers us new insight into an important chapter in American history: the “Gilded Age” of wealth and industry that followed the Civil War. In the late 19th century, before the advent of the automobile and the airplane, the railroad was the primary means by which thousands of Americans crossed the country, putting down roots as they went. Pullman was the first company to roll out a new model of “sleeper” railcar: outfitted not just with more- comfortable pull-down berths, but with stained glass, gleaming wood, and thick carpets as well, and a staff of African American porters to tend to passenger needs. The Pullman car would play a historic role in the African American journey; as the largest employer of African Americans, many of them freed slaves and their descendants, it would give rise to the first established black middle class in America.
For most porters in those early years, it was enough to be earning a wage and traveling the country. But as time went on and the sub-par conditions, long hours, and low pay didn’t improve, labor unrest led, in 1925, to the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, which became one of the most powerful African American political forces of the 20th century. For this reason, the Sunbeam has also earned a worthy spot on the newly established Vermont African American Heritage Trail.
At Hildene, a railroad car that once carried passengers across the country now transports visitors back in time to an age of national growth and social change. The Sunbeam exhibit, titled “Many Voices,” offers a timeline narrative of the Pullman porters’ story, along with the rare opportunity to stroll the interior of a restored car—from the plush passenger seating in the front to the spartan porters’ accommodations in the back—and to reflect on a complex legacy that calls to us still today.
Hildene.1005 Hildene Road, Manchester, VT. 802-362-1788; hildene.org. For more on the history of the Pullman porters, readRising From the Rails, by Larry Tye, former reporter for the Boston Globe.