Although today we live in what might be called the post-railroad age, it is impossible to overstate the importance of railroads in the formation of our great nation. Before their appearance in the 1830s, the single, unified United States we think of today existed only in the minds of political thinkers, not in the minds of ordinary travelers who had to rely on horse-drawn carriages over bad roads or slow-moving canal barges and riverboats to get from place to place. Interstate travel
wasn't easy and wasn't to be taken lightly. The journeys were arduous and sometimes physically punishing. The railroad changed all that. Not only did that single technological leap unite us physically, but it also transformed us from an agrarian society to an industrial world power by making possible a single, integrated economy.
Railroads were America's first big business, and George Pullman (1831-97), who founded the Pullman Co. of Chicago, was one of the industry's early, great magnates. His revolutionary construction techniques allowed passengers to travel at a hitherto-unknown level of comfort. He wowed the Springfield press with a visit on May 26, 1865.
The Register reported: "To the train on the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, which passed up at noon today, was attached one of Pullman's improved and beautiful sleeping carriages.... This carriage we found to be the most comfortable and complete in all its appurtenances, and decidedly superior in many respects to any similar carriage we have ever seen." The Journal gushed with similar praise.
Keith Herron, who works for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, was a manager at the state-owned Pullman Historic Site for five years. Through his work there, Herron became acquainted with Arthur Dubin, a retired architect with a passion for trains and a tremendous collection of train-related memorabilia. Dubin was acquainted with many people who worked for the Pullman Co., and in 1969 they made him aware that the company was liquidating much of its archival material, including thousands of photographs, glass-plate negatives, spittoons, blankets, buttons, chinaware, hand towels, and even books, papers, and company files (plus a porter's hat!). Dubin took possession of the items and passed much of the material on to the Smithsonian Institution (and others), but in 1994, thanks in large part to Herron's efforts, the Illinois State Historical Library (now the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library) was able to purchase approximately 20 boxes of material from the collection. A portion of the Arthur Dubin Pullman collection is now on display in the library lobby, located on lower level 2 of the Old State Capitol Historic Site in downtown Springfield.
"I have no idea why the corporate officials would see no historic value in this collection," Herron says. "We thought it was a terribly interesting collection that was something we should not pass up but rather acquire and make it available to people."
Mary Michals, audiovisual curator for the ALPL, says, "I think it ranks with some of the better railroad collections out there. It documents an entire era in railroad history."
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.