Railway sleeping car porters

Railway sleeping cars were introduced to Canada in the 1870s by the Pullman Palace Car Company. Pullman built and operated luxury passenger rail cars equipped with seating areas that converted into bunk beds; the seats were converted into the lower berth and the upper berth was pulled down from the ceiling. Pullman cars were known for their accommodations, comfort, and the service provided by the porters.

A black-and-white photograph of three men posing beside a railway car. A chef stands on the steps leading into the train, another man holds the handrail and the third, a porter, stands to the side beside the train.

A porter with two other employees at a stop during the tour of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle across Canada, 1914 (MIKAN 3587745)

A black-and-white photograph of a woman, in profile, lying under the blankets in the lower bunk reading a newspaper.

In the evenings, the porters would make up the beds. One of the seats was extended to create the comfortable lower bunk. While the passengers slept, the porters continued to work until after midnight. The porters could nap if there were no calls or emergencies during the night, but were awake to begin their workday before dawn, 1937 (MIKAN 3353752)

A black-and-white photograph of people seated in a railway sleeping car, looking out the windows.

While the passengers were at breakfast, the porters would convert the berths back into seating. The upper berth would be stowed into the panels above the passenger seats, 1929 (MIKAN 3350533)

The railways were one of the few Canadian companies to hire black men in the early 20th century. It was an opportunity that appealed to many men. There were limitations, however. The railways hired black men solely to be porters, and from the First World War until the 1950s, did not hire or promote black men to the post of engineer, conductor, or any other job on the train.

The porters served the passengers during their trip; they would help with boarding and disembarking, serve drinks and snacks, set up berths, make beds, polish shoes, tend to and entertain small children, and cater to the customers’ needs and wants. The porters were essential to rail travel—they were always present but also pushed to the background.

A black-and-white photograph of people in a train station. A porter, with luggage on a dolly, is facing away from the camera. Two well-dressed travellers are speaking to a ticket agent. An information board with destinations is on the wall behind the travellers announcing the train as “The Dominion” from Montréal to Vancouver. A passenger train is visible in the background.

A porter takes luggage for passengers about to board “The Dominion” at Windsor Station, Montréal, Quebec, circa 1947 (MIKAN 3613396)

The men received regular wages, had the opportunity to see Canada and meet travellers. Stanley Grizzle, a former sleeping car porter, states in his autobiography that porters were admired within the black community.

These benefits and rewards came at a cost. Porters worked long hours, often on call for 24 hours with their sleeping accommodations on the train in the men’s smoking room. They were frequently away from home for days at a time. They were also wary of passenger complaints and were often subject to harsh discipline from management. Porters would risk reprisals from passengers when they reported gambling, excessive drinking, or illegal activities.

The porters received demeaning and insulting comments and names from passengers. Stanley Grizzle wrote that passengers would frequently address porters as “George” after George Pullman, the original owner of the Pullman Car Company. The porters were also forced to rely on tips from passengers. While the money was welcome, Stanley Grizzle writes, the act of asking for a tip was demeaning, reinforced subservience, and allowed the company to justify keeping wages low because of the tips.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd of people with baggage standing on the platform next to a passenger train. Two porters are seen beside the train. One is on the platform attending to some luggage; the other stands in the doorway of the train. An automobile in the foreground has a sign on the door reading “Jasper Park Lodge.” Mountains are visible in the distance.

Two porters assist passengers and other crew at the railway station in Jasper, Alberta, 1929 (MIKAN 3199681)

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in Canada during the Second World War. The union helped to negotiate higher wages, better working (and sleeping) conditions, fairer and more transparent disciplinary measures, and ended racial discrimination in hiring and promotions. Beginning in the 1960s with changes in the travel industry, the railways were employing fewer and fewer sleeping car porters. In 1999, Heritage Canada unveiled a plaque at Windsor Station, Montréal, Quebec, to honour the sleeping car porters.

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One thought on “Railway sleeping car porters

  1. I have worked as a Sleeping Car & Parlor Car Attendant for both of Canada’s two great railways; CPR & CNR serving wealthy Canadians. For me it was the best Job and a stepping stone that any black man could get in Canada in the 1940’s to 1960’s. My autobiography speaks volumes of the immigrant life in Canada, at that time. With my thanks to all, Gerald.

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