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Profile: Benjamin Gaines recalls his days on the railroad as a Pullman porter

Benjamin Gaines, 93, reflects on his career as a Pullman porter Feb. 17 in his Evanston, Ill., home. (Brian Cassella / Tribune News Service)
Benjamin Gaines, 93, reflects on his career as a Pullman porter Feb. 17 in his Evanston, Ill., home. (Brian Cassella / Tribune News Service)
Tony Briscoe Tribune News Service

CHICAGO – In his nine years as a Pullman porter, Benjamin Gaines waited on high society types as they traveled across the country aboard luxury rail cars.

Gaines, who moved to Chicago in 1945, washed dishes, mixed drinks, served aged cheese and sardines, shined shoes, changed bedsheets and also found time to regale passengers with stories on routes from Seattle to Miami.

“I always catered to the kids,” Gaines said. “They’d come back to the club car. I would point out scenery to them as we traveled out west and their parents were appreciative of the fact I had knowledge about where we were going to.”

Gaines, 93, is a member of a dwindling fraternity of Pullman porters who have lived to see their legacy immortalized, first with the creation of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in 1995, and, recently, when President Barack Obama proclaimed the South Side Pullman district as the nation’s 406th national park.

The Pullman Palace Car Co., founded by George Pullman, leased a variety of cars to railroads and directly employed the attendants, including porters, many of whom were recently freed slaves.

For much of the early 20th century, the company was the largest employer of African-Americans, with porters contributing to the significant growth of the black middle class. Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, secured the first major labor agreement between a union led by African-Americans and a corporation.

“The porters, believe it or not, we had a celebrity status,” Gaines said during a recent interview at his Evanston, Illinois, home. “We were upper-class because it was a prestigious job.

“A lot of porters bought homes from working on the railroad. Many of the brownstones on the South Side of Chicago, porters bought them with tips and money they made from working extra runs.”

Born in a Kentucky town “that wasn’t as big as Soldier Field” and raised in Evansville, Indiana, Gaines relished the opportunity to travel all over the country.

He recalled a seemingly vertical ascent on a route to Denver, and snaking through the nearly 6-mile Moffat Tunnel that cuts across the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains en route to Salt Lake City. Porters had to bid for routes, with the most coveted destinations going to those with seniority.

As a newly minted porter, Gaines got lucky when an older colleague retired and he was put on a route from Detroit to Miami. Tourists heading south tipped well and the porters got some time in sunny Florida. When more seasoned porters asked about how passengers tipped, Gaines lowballed in an effort to keep the route. But veteran porters eventually caught on and he got bumped, Gaines said.

Passengers rode in high style. On club cars, porters mixed a gin and soda for 90 cents. On the end of trains was generally a bullet-shaped observation car that provided passengers with panoramic views of the countryside. And, of course, the renowned sleeping cars, where passengers lodged in roomettes with two bunks.

Porters had much more modest accommodations, with most having to settle for about three hours of sleep in dining or club cars after they’d closed, Gaines said.

“We broke the tables down and slept on cots,” Gaines said. “We got up the next morning, picked up and everything looked like the day before.”

Gaines fondly remembers sharing the company of celebrities like “The Invisible Man” actor Claude Rains, who enjoyed a nightly glass of whiskey on train rides to his farm in rural Pennsylvania. Gaines also met actor Victor Mature, who regularly traveled on routes to his home in Louisville and had once asked Gaines for a favor.

“He asked me one evening, ‘Can I get off from your car when we arrive in the terminal?’ ” Gaines recalled. “He said, ‘The reason being, I know the press is going to be there and I’ll be two hours trying to get away from them. If I can get off on your car I can duck him.’ And that’s what he did.”

And while most of Gaines’ encounters with passengers were pleasant, he and other porters also endured racial prejudice during times of segregation. Some passengers disparagingly referred to all porters as “George.”

“My answer was, ‘My name is Benjamin Franklin Gaines. There’s no George anywhere,’ ” Gaines said. “I think it caught them by surprise because there would be no follow-up insult behind that.”

Gaines, who worked as a porter from 1945 to 1954, doesn’t have much in terms of memorabilia from those days. He didn’t visit the former Pullman company town during his time as a porter. But he has visited the A. Philip Randolph Museum to view items from the collection like the signature blue jacket and cap of the sort he once wore.

After his time with Pullman he went on to work in the stockroom of Encyclopedia Americana and for the Postal Service. His railroad days inspired a lifelong love of travel. He has visited all 50 states as well as Europe and Asia.

A few years after leaving his porter job, Gaines and his wife, Lydia, who died in 2008, built a home in Evanston, where they raised their two sons. He and one son still live there.

“I like to think we served people with dignity, without being Uncle Toms,” Gaines said. “It was small things that we did endeared us to a lot of passengers out there. If you were courteous to people, they appreciated it.”

“I just enjoyed taking care of people,” he said. “To me, it was fun and it made the trip a lot shorter.”

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