Pullman Portrait

Moving Buildings with George Pullman


George Pullman before the dawn of his dream to develop luxurious sleeping cars.





By Megan McKinney



Moving houses away from the edge of an expanding Erie Canal, raising Chicago’s great hotels and businesses above a newly elevated street level and joining his peers in chasing second tier riches in the Wild West—these were pre-sleeping car careers for George Pullman. 

George was from a family of New England carpenters and cabinetmakers. However, his father, Lewis Pullman, was drawn to New York State by a boom in the business of relocating houses, warehouses and other buildings during the necessary widening of the Erie Canal.  


George was photographed in the middle row of this family photograph, to the right of his parents, Lewis and Emily.


Although a successful cabinetmaker, Lewis Pullman plunged enthusiastically into the business of house moving as the expansion of the canal progressed. His carpentry skills served him well in this new endeavor and, depending on the building, he devised new ways for their transfer—often using a form of rollers.


The Erie Canal.


Soon George was working beside his father, often down in the mud. Although impeccably groomed, the young Pullman was always ready to do what was necessary to complete an assignment fully. But he was also known for following a tough job by “cleaning up well,” and soon promenading “in all his glory, with high top hat and long tailed coat.” However—always motivated—there was a return to grubby work the following day.


 Moving a building in the mid-19th century.


When George was 22, his father died, and, as the eldest unmarried son, it was necessary for him to support his beloved mother, Emily, and a large family of younger siblings, which he did quite cheerfully. Because money was essential and it was obvious there would be an eventual end to the lucrative occupation of relocating canal-side buildings, George was alert for further business prospects. In 1859, he learned of the need for resourceful contractors to move buildings in Chicago—but with a twist; this time, buildings would be moved vertically rather than horizontally. Furthermore, like so many fellow Yankees, he viewed mid-19th century Chicago as a field of opportunity.


An early 1850’s Chicago road—and this was during a dry spell! 


Chicago was finally rising out of the swampy mud on which it had been built. In 1855 and again in 1857, the city council passed ordinances to raise the grade of the streets bordering Lake Michigan and the Chicago River by four to seven feet, so that when Pullman arrived in 1857, Chicago was a town with streets and sidewalks of uneven heights.
The successful draining of the notorious swamp–with the installation of sewers and putting down of gas and water pipes, followed by the elevation and paving of streets–was not an entirely happy development for owners of businesses lining these streets. Proprietors of costly shops found their property now below grade and without direct storefront access or visibility. Rather than lose the high rents they could command for first floor commercial space, with show windows and street level entrances, owners were willing to pay top dollar to lift their buildings.
It stood to reason, thought the resourceful Pullman, that if a building can be moved to a new location, it can be raised a few feet. He was not alone; there were others who would join him as colleagues or competitors.


A camera’s view of raising the John M. Van Osdel-designed Briggs House at Wells and Randolph Streets.


Pullman’s first contract was to raise a hotel, the Matteson House, which he was able to elevate by five feet in less than a month. Following that, he raised another hotel, Briggs House, in a process shown above and below.


 How an artist saw the Briggs House raising.


But that was just the warm-up. Next, with two other contractors, 600 workers and 6,000 jackscrews, he did the same to the entire block of Lake Street between Clark and LaSalle, including a row of shops, a bank and the sidewalk in front of them.


 Lake Street between Clark and LaSalle at the time of its famous raising.


After Pullman and his team managed to lift the Lake Street stretch of buildings more than four feet in five days without disrupting business, they installed a new foundation beneath the block. It was as though the businesses had always existed at this height, and years later steel magnate Joseph T. Ryerson was still marveling at this achievement when he wrote that it was, “a feat of mechanical operation the country had never heard of before. The business of the block went on as usual during the operation; not a pane of glass was broken, nor were people aware of the movement, so gradual was the process.”

Then, in 1861, Pullman and 500 men raised another hotel, the prestigious Tremont House, by six feet using the same method, with each man, on signal, giving 10 jackscrews a half turn until the building had been lifted to the desired height.


 The Tremont House became six feet taller.


During those early years Pullman was described as an energetic, adventurous, vigorous and ambitious young man, known as a first-rate supervisor who continued to be unafraid of hard work. While raising buildings, he also remained in the business of moving houses for owners who wished to relocate them further south and away from the rapidly growing Chicago business district. Always the innovator, George took a conveyance his father had invented for transporting buildings near the Erie Canal and improved it. Lewis Pullman’s device had been equipped with wheels for rolling houses from one location to another, but George devised a safer, faster method for moving them by substituting skids for wheels and sliding the houses along the ground quickly and with minimum risk.



But it is not for moving buildings or raising them for which George Pullman is remembered. Legend is that while spending a sleepless night in a rudimentary sleeping rail car in the 1850s, it occurred to the young innovator that, with minor, but fundamental, tweaking and significant upgrading, an uncomfortable journey could be made not merely tolerable but luxurious. But is that true?

Like the McCormicks and their reaper, creating a hotel-like rail car was a long process with many hitches and various other inventors pursuing the same goal—with nobody getting it quite right, yet.

Pullman began working first with a partner, a Benjamin Field, and later with the addition of Field’s brother Norman, making it a three-man company. It was an expensive undertaking, involving the purchase of an existing rail car, possibly more cars, with which to experiment—tempting Pullman into the quick money territory of other developing Chicago tycoons: the American West!


Next in Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties: Pullman’s Wild West.


Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl