This was before men transported George Pullman to Graceland Cemetery, his already-decomposing corpse safe and secure in a coffin lined with lead and reinforced with steel-and-concrete; before cement was poured into his grave, so fearful was his family that his employees would find where he was buried, dig him up, and desecrate his body, dragging it ceremoniously through the town of Pullman where Pullman himself had turned from friend to foe, cutting his workers’ wages by one-fourth while refusing to lower rent in the houses he owned or decrease the cost of utilities, which he controlled. This was before all of that...but not by much.

    Here is the story of when an ambitious man’s heart quit beating, finally giving out, the way Pullman’s own sleeping car, carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln, stopped at long last in Springfield after a seemingly never-ending journey across the country: one final sigh, like a man’s breath, pouring from the train’s nose. You might think a person might reflect upon his family, his spouse or his children, when the cloak starts to drape before his eyes, but what George Pullman thought about was a hotel called Tremont House.

    They said it couldn’t be done, the raising of Tremont. Chicago had been built on a swamp, the worst possible land on which to build a city; and each time it rained, men and their horses, or women out shopping for scarves or hats, would get sucked into the unholy brew of mud and shit, unable to move, requiring assistance from strangers standing on more solid ground to uncork them. And so the city needed to be raised six to eight feet, and George Pullman was hired to do it.

    With jack-screws lining its base, each man responsible for quarter-turning four of the screws at the sound of Pullman’s whistle, a building would be raised, inch by inch. As the months went by, and then the years, more buildings were raised, until most of Chicago had been lifted up out of the bog, but no one thought Tremont House could be budged; no one thought it possible. It was the largest structure in the city: five-and-half stories tall, brick, and taking up over an acre of land. To compound matters, the hotel’s owner—a man named John Drake—didn’t want to interrupt business. The guests, among them a U.S. Senator, were not to know what was happening. Could this be done? John Drake asked. The year was 1861, and George Mortimer Pullman was thirty years old: Anything was possible.

    Thirty-six years later, his heart stops, the last breath is taken, but he doesn’t think about his wife, Harriet, or his beloved daughter Florence, for whom he named a hotel in the now-despised town of Pullman, or the daughter named after his wife, or either of his twin sons, George Jr. or Walter. What he thinks of is Tremont House, as if this distant part of his life were only a moment ago. He is a young man again, still ankle-deep in the muck, watching the hotel from across the street and wondering what the guests must be feeling, guests who are unaware that the building itself is rising from the ground, four, five, six feet—probably unaware that anything at all is amiss save for inexplicable, periodic dips in their stomachs, a collective exhalation from being ever-so-gently lifted, the way a child feels when a parent comes up from behind and hoists him up without warning. The tea in their cups barely ripples and the large chandeliers sway imperceptibly, and then—ah!—they feel that dip in their lower bellies. The guests are lightheaded today; they’re giddy—or so Pullman imagines as he peers at the hotel rising higher and higher, standing like a pharaoh who, having loaded his crypt full of gold and alabaster and jewels, watches helplessly as it ascends to the afterlife without him.

John McNally is the author of two novels, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card, and a short story collection, Troublemakers.  He’s also edited numerous anthologies, including Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories (co-edited with Owen King).  His next book, Ghosts of Chicago, a collection of short stories, will be published this fall.  A native of Chicago, he presently lives with his wife, Amy, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he is Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University.

Back to Freight Stories No. 1


John McNally


(George Pullman, 1831-1897)