Bill Costen My Grandfather was a Private Car Porter on UP back in the late 1800's. My Father worked as a Cook's Assistant and I was a Porter.
from the February 29, 2008 edition - http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0229/p20s01-ussc.html
Pullman porters tell tales of a train ride through history Working the sleeping car was one of the best jobs African Americans could get after the Civil War. Though it involved serving well-off whites, the Pullman Company helped create the first black middle class in America. By Harry Bruinius | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Back in the summer of 1965, a few months before he would start his first year of college at the University of Nebraska, Bill Costen was thrilled about his new summer job. On his first day, he put on the uniform that had been a symbol of status and pride for African-American men for more than a century: a pressed white jacket, a black tie, and the visored hat of the Pullman porter.
He had grown up in Omaha, Neb., the hub of the legendary Union Pacific Railroad, and both his grandfather and father had worked on the westward-bound trains that helped transform the country after the Civil War. But for Mr. Costen, a successful high school football player, this was his chance to experience a new kind of adventure.
"I had never seen the West," he says now as he sits on Amtrak's Washington-bound Acela Express. "So I was very excited on my first trip. I got to meet and talk with people – I had a lot of talking relationships with people. And I was so big – I played football – that I was sort of like a celebrity. When businessmen, sports enthusiasts would ask me if I played, I'd have a captive audience for most of the day."
This week, Amtrak teamed with the Chicago-based A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum to honor the African-American men who helped define the bygone era of romance and luxury on America's passenger trains.
The little-known history of the Pullman porters, who for more than a century provided the top-notch service demanded by Pullman Palace Cars and their mostly well-to-do white passengers, reveals in many ways the first emergence of a black middle class in the United States and the first foundation for a generation of black leaders in the 20th century. Thurgood Marshall and his father both worked as Pullman porters, as did Malcolm X and the distinguished photo journalist Gordon Parks.
Being a train porter was one of the first relatively well-paying jobs for former slaves after the Civil War, and by the mid-1920s, peak years for passenger trains, more than 20,000 African-American men were employed as Pullman porters and other types of train personnel, the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada at the time.
"We had it relatively easy compared to the gentlemen who came at the tail end of the Emancipation Proclamation," says E. Donald Hughes, another former Pullman porter. "The sleeping car porter had to endure all manner of horrendous treatment.... And yet, in the black community, they were the highest you could be. When they put on that uniform, they were larger than life. And yet, in the white community, they were still the lowest of the low."
Indeed, when George Pullman first developed the "Pullman sleeper" or "Pullman Palace Car," he marketed it as "luxury for the middle class." In the decades after the Civil War, he went south to recruit the best and brightest former slaves to work on these rolling five-star hotels, men who had already been trained to perform the service duties he required.
Despite the degradation and continuing exploitation of these porters, who had to make beds, mend clothes, and shine shoes, they took their new paid positions with pride and dignity. "There were constant themes emerging as I learned about these men," says Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago, who delivered the keynote address at the reception held last week at Union Station in Washington, D.C. "Themes like self-pride, a belief in unity, a self-imposed standard of excellence, a dedication to the union and to the cause, and a commitment to family."
Led by A. Philip Randolph, these workers formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first African-American labor union in US history. (They were denied membership in almost all other unions.) After a long struggle, the Brotherhood won recognition, and in 1937 they negotiated a landmark contract with the Pullman Company, winning $2 million in pay increases, a shorter work week, and overtime pay. Few people realize that it was Randolph who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the keynote.
"They realized that their work had value," says Ms. Hughes. "They realized that their work provided money for the train companies. Passengers who rode the railroad and wanted to ride in the sleeping cars and dining cars, they liked the service they were provided, they liked how it made them feel, and it made them repeat customers."
Costen first put on the Pullman uniform a few years after King's famous speech, when the era of porter service – and luxury passenger trains – was near its end. But he did reap the benefits of almost 100 years of this labor history. He generally made $832 in a two-week period, and he says he often doubled that in tips, easily making him one of the highest earners of his college peers. "I think I was one of only four students who had a car on campus," he laughs.
As chair-car porter, Costen would be responsible for three cars, usually about 200 passengers. After carrying their luggage on board, he provided pillows and offered passengers a pillow case for 35 cents. "Usually, people gave you a dollar and said keep the change," he says. "But I remember one guy giving me a $100 bill, and saying, 'Keep the change,' without even looking up."
His runs would take him through the mountains of Utah and Idaho, which he had never seen before. His favorite run was the 18-hour trip to Ogden, Utah. The train would leave late in the evening from Omaha, and arrive in Ogden around 6 p.m. "It was sort of like the Las Vegas strip, with all these restaurants and clubs. And we got to stay in a hotel, since the return didn't leave until the next morning," he says.
The run to Pocatella, Idaho, however, was a 23-hour trip that didn't arrive until midnight. The return left at 3 a.m., leaving the porters barely a few hours to sleep. "Sometimes I'd go 23 hours on the run to Pocatella, then sleep, or try to sleep, for three hours, and then work another 23 hours back," Costen says. "Then, when I'd pull into the station in Omaha, the dispatcher would ask me, 'You want to go back out?' The money was so good, I'd do another 23 hours, both ways, and end up working almost 4 days without much sleep."
Costen worked his way through college as a Pullman porter, but in 1969 the Buffalo Bills drafted him as a defensive end in the 14th round. He played through the preseason, scoring the first touchdown on a blocked punt against the New York Jets, and roomed with Al Cowlings, O.J. Simpson's close friend. Costen was injured, however, and the Bills released him before he played a regular season game.
Today Costen runs Sky Endeavors, a hot air balloon ride company, and says it's the best job he's ever had. He pauses. "But being a porter was the second best job I ever had."
'Twas A Grand Ride On Rails Of History
'Twas A Grand Ride On Rails Of History
By Brian Hallenbeck
Published on 2/26/2008 in Home »Main Photo
Bill Costen found shuteye hard to come by on the train down to Washington Monday. He never had gotten the hang of sleeping on a train, which makes perfect sense. Forty years ago, an innocent doze could have cost him his job as a porter on the Union Pacific Railroad.
But it wasn't the specter of the 1960s that kept him wide awake on this day. It was the anticipation.
It was barely dawn when Costen boarded Amtrak's Regional Service in Hartford. At New York's Pennsylvania Station, he transferred to an Acela train that whisked him to D.C., where Amtrak would honor him and two other former porters from the Northeast. The three would represent the tens of thousands of porters, all African-American men, who were once fixtures on the nation's passenger railroads, their presence as steady and reassuring as the ceaseless clickety-clack of steel on steel.
View a slideshow of Bill Costen.
“The whole trip went real fast,” Costen said later. “They really made us feel like celebrities.”
The dapper Costen, a 60-year-old Bloomfield entrepreneur who runs a hot-air balloon business, recalled his railroad past in an interview last week. Rule one for porters, he said, was: “Do not fall asleep.”
“If you were caught sleeping, you were going to be fired,” put off the train at the next stop, Costen said, chuckling a bit. “They would have inspectors sneak on the train just to try to catch porters asleep. ... The older porters taught us how to sleep with our eyes open. You can sleep with your eyes open. Yes, you can.”
Sleep often beckoned, too, especially during those 23-hour runs from Costen's hometown of Omaha, Neb., site of Union Pacific's headquarters, to Pocatello, Idaho. Costen also worked runs between Omaha and Ogden, Utah; Omaha and Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Omaha and Denver.
“Sometimes I'd go 23 hours out, then sleep, or try to sleep, for three hours and come 23 hours back,” he said. “And as soon as I pull into the station in Omaha, they'd say, 'Do you want to go back out?' The money was so good, I'd do another 23 hours.”
Costen never did turn down a run during the four summers and holiday breaks he worked while home from college. He was a chair car, or coach, porter, helping passengers on and off the train, stowing their baggage, tending to their needs and cleaning up after them.
“It was the best job I could have ever dreamed of because of all the experiences I had, all the people I met,” he said. “I had never been out West, so I got to see the West, got to see the mountains of Utah and Idaho. It was really beautiful. I just loved riding on the train.”
William Hollis Costen has a legacy when it comes to Union Pacific porters. His grandfather, William James Costen, worked as a porter from the late-1800s into the 1930s. His career, and perhaps his life, were shortened by a railroad accident.
Bill has only heard his grandfather's story in the last few years, the details supplied by Bill's father, William Theodore Costen, who's 83 and lives in Omaha. Bill's father worked briefly as a cook's assistant on the railroad before toiling in Omaha's meat-packing plants. Bill's grandfather was already in his 60s when Bill's father was born.
What the surviving Costens do know is that William James, born around Baltimore, Md., in 1861, migrated to Omaha as a young man and worked as a porter. He may well have been a Pullman porter, one who catered to well-heeled passengers on the Pullman Co. “sleepers” whose overnight accommodations epitomized an age's luxury. The Pullman Co. built and staffed the cars, which it leased to the railroads that featured them.
His grandfather was definitely a private-car porter as well, Bill Costen said, possibly for the Union Pacific president at the time.
“My father remembers the name Harriman, but we're not sure which one,” Costen said. “There was a father in the late 1800s, and then there was his son ...”.
Costen speculates that the Harriman may have been Edward, who became a director of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1897 and its president in 1903, an office he held until his death in 1909. A son, W. Averell Harriman, was vice president of the company and later a member of U.S. cabinets as well as a presidential candidate in 1956.
Costen's father told him his grandfather would leave home for two to three weeks at a time and return with “a brand new suit.” Harriman, his father told him, would buy a suit and “tell my grandfather to buy one for himself.”
Though Edward Harriman was known to frequently travel from Omaha by train, no records that could establish a link between him and William James Costen exist, according to a spokesman at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Around 1932 or 1933, Costen said, his grandfather was standing on the back of a train car when the train jerked forward, throwing him off. The fall left him paralyzed for the rest of his life, which ended in 1939.
•••••Around the time Costen graduated from Omaha's Central High School in 1965, Union Pacific advertised for apprentice porters. He and six of his buddies got jobs. Costen attended the University of Nebraska for a year, didn't like it and, heeding an uncle's advice, transferred to Morris Brown College in Atlanta. He stood 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 280 pounds. He made the football team, earning an athletic scholarship in his second year at Morris Brown. On the track team, he put the shot and threw the discus and javelin.
Each fall, after a summer riding the rails, he'd return to school with his pockets full. He was one of the few on campus who drove a car, he said, a purchase made possible by his porter earnings.
Costen displayed a pay stub showing he was paid $832 for a two-week period in 1966. He made probably twice that in tips, he said. Porters furnished passengers with free pillows, but the pillowcases went for 35 cents apiece. “Most people would give you a dollar and tell you to keep the change,” he said. “You got double time for working weekends and triple time for working holidays.”
Another well-preserved document in Costen's possession shows he worked Christmas Day 1965.
In his second year at Morris Brown, the Dallas Cowboys began to scout him. But it was the Buffalo Bills who drafted him in the 14th round of the NFL's 1970 draft. It was O.J. Simpson's second year with the Bills. In training camp, Costen roomed with Simpson's teammate from the University of Southern California, Al Cowlings, the Bills' first-round pick that year. Twenty-four years later, Cowlings was the driver and Simpson the distraught passenger in the most infamous Bronco ride in history.
“When I saw that, I said, 'I know those guys,' ” Costen said. “... I'm glad I don't know them now.”
He recalled Simpson as “dynamic,” an “amazing” athlete and “just one of the guys” off the field.
When the Bills let him go, Costen played briefly for the minor league Hartford Knights, which is how he ended up in Connecticut. He worked 14 years in the insurance industry, then got involved in ballooning, at first for the advertising revenue balloons could generate and then as a commercial venture. He's been running Sky Endeavors since 1984, giving rides and making promotional appearances across the country. He also travels with the Costen Cultural Exhibit, a collection of historical memorabilia.
Costen, unabashedly excited about Monday's celebration in Washington, said during last week's interview that he didn't know what to expect, a state he likened to his life as a hot-air balloonist.
“I never know where I'm going to land,” he said.
He hadn't thought much about his own railroad days lately, and it had been years since he'd talked to his fellow porters. But he remembered that several years ago he'd answered an ad in a publication of the Chicago-based A. Philip Randolph Museum, which was seeking to publish a Pullman porter registry.
Amtrak worked from the museum's 2002 archive of more than 2,000 names when it set out to locate former porters and invite them to the Washington celebration, according to Hank Ernest, public relations director for Images USA, an Atlanta marketing firm.
Concentrating on the Northeast, the agency last month started to search for former porters.
“We found many with family connections, either their fathers or grandfathers were porters, but we wanted living porters,” Ernest said. “We found the three, but we know there are more out there.”
Amtrak plans similar celebrations in Chicago in May and in San Francisco in the fall. It will search for former porters living in the Midwest and West, respectively, in advance of those events.
In addition to Costen, Monday's honorees were E. Donald Hughes, a retired sleeping-car porter from Columbia, Md., and Thomas E. Dunn, a retired dining car cook from Washington, D.C. Hughes is in his 60s, Dunn his 80s, Ernest said.
Costen's daughter Chantal, a junior at Howard University, joined him.
“Today's celebration is an opportunity for Amtrak's current employees to express their gratitude and recognize the dedication and service of their forebears, the Pullman porters,” Darlene Abubakar, Amtrak's director of national advertising, said at the Union Station ceremony. “The service of the Pullman porters often goes under-reported as a part of American history. Today we celebrate their courageous journey, victorious struggle for equality, and contributions to passenger rail travel.”
Later, the honorees would dine at B. Smith's, the venerable Union Station restaurant, and spend the night at The Fairmont hotel. Plans for a reception on Capitol Hill had to be scrapped because of a last-minute scheduling conflict.
Costen's return train, the Vermonter, was scheduled to depart at 8:10 this morning. This time, he might've been able to get some shuteye.
Total 3 images.
By Peter Huoppi
Bill Costen of Bloomfield waits on the platform at Union Station in Hartford early Monday for the train to Washington, D.C., to attend a ceremony honoring former railroad porters.
By Peter Huoppi
Bill Costen's grandfather, William J. Costen, who worked as a porter, and his father, William T. Costen, are seen together in this old family photograph taken in an unspecified rail yard.
By Peter Huoppi
Bill Costen of Bloomfield photographs an Amtrak train as it pulls into Union Station in Hartford at dawn Monday. Costen, who once worked as a railroad porter, was bound for Washington for a ceremony honoring former porters.