George Pullman was one of many colorful and controversial industrialists who lived and worked in Chicago in the late 19th century. Pullman gained early wealth by raising houses above Chicago’s marshy ground, setting them 6-8 feet above grade to prevent flooding. He became famous when he raised the six-story Tremont Hotel, which sat on an acre of ground. His workers raised the hotel effortlessly, with the guests still in it!
Pullman later went west, and worked as a gold broker in the Colorado Gold Mines. Noting the discomfort of rail travel at the time, he also developed the Pullman Sleeping Car, a vast improvement in comfort and luxury over previous passenger cars. Upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Pullman was able to arrange to have Lincoln’s body brought back from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois in a Pullman sleeper, thus generating immeasurable publicity for his firm. Orders for the sleeping car began to pour in.
To create what he felt was a healthier and more productive environment for his workers, Pullman bought 4000 acres of land near Lake Calumet, southeast of Chicago proper. He hired the architect Solon Beman to design his new plant, and, in order to ameliorate labor unrest and unhealthy conditions, he also had Beman design a town around the plant to house his workers. The town included parks, a church, markets, theatres, and a hotel: in short all the necessities for the workers to live comfortably. Pullman reasoned that, removed from city problems and agitation from labor organizers, his workers would be more loyal and productive. In the beginning, the Pullman cars rolled off the line, and the company prospered.
But the town of Pullman was not a utopia. It was run at a profit for the Pullman Company. Pullman ruled the town like a feudal lord, inspecting homes for cleanliness and terminating leases with ten days notice if he was not satisfied with a tenant. He prohibited independent newspapers as well as public speech. When an economic downturn hit in 1894, Pullman cut working hours, lowered wages, and laid workers off. He did not, however, lower the rents on the workers’ homes or the prices they had to pay at the Pullman stores. The result was the Pullman Strike. The strike was a bloody, violent affair that required the intervention of Federal Troops sent in by President Grover Cleveland.
In the aftermath of the strike, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered Pullman to divest his ownership of the town, which was annexed to Chicago. The company town was declared “un-American” by a national commission that was formed to study the causes of the bloody strike. The committee found that George Pullman’s iron-fisted handling of the town and its residents was one of the major reasons for the uprising.
George Pullman died in 1897, and his enterprise later merged with another firm to form the Pullman-Standard company. The golden age of rail travel, symbolized by the luxurious Pullman Sleeping Car, as well as porters and dining cars, slowly passed into history, supplanted first the by the automobile, and later by the aeroplane.
But the town of Pullman remained. The company town that was once reviled by its residents because of the heavy-handed management of George Pullman became a source of excellent housing on Chicago’s far southwest side. The community presents a small-town atmosphere in the heart of the big city, the homes are reasonably priced, the property taxes are low, and it is conveniently close to transportation. For this reason, residents have been rehabbing these homes at their own expense and maintaining attractive gardens and public spaces. There is an interesting mix of housing stock – predominately brick row houses which served as workers’ quarters - but also large, attractive single family homes which housed the company executives.
In 1960, the Pullman area was threatened with demolition in order to build an industrial park. The neighbors banded together, forming the Pullman Civic Organization, and staved off destruction. The State of Illinois then granted landmark status to South Pullman in 1969, and the entire Pullman area received National Landmark Status in 1971. The State also purchased the Hotel Florence and the Pullman Clock Tower and designated them as State historic sites. The State has funded the rehabilitation of the Administration building as well as the Hotel Florence, and the area is now a venue for many activities during the year.
If you visit Pullman, the best way to go is to take the Metra Electric Train from Millenium station at 151 E. Randolph. Take this south to 111th Street-Pullman station. Leave the station and walk east to Cottage Grove Ave, cross to the park and walk south one block through the park to 112th street. The visitor center is located on your left. There are other options for travelling to Pullman which can be found on their web site: http://www.pullmanil.org/ .
Take a look around the visitor center. Here you will see a lot of artefacts from the era of George Pullman. There is a twenty minute film that gives you the history of the Pullman Sleeping Car Company, as well as the story of the company town that grew up around the plant. Next you need to visit the Hotel Florence, the Administrative building, the church, and of course the wonderful brick row houses and single family homes. There is a guided tour on the first Sunday of the month, from May to October. Or you can get a map from the visitor center and make your own walking tour. On the second weekend in October, the residents throw open their houses to the public and you can see the insides of these historic buildings. Be sure to consult the website for times and other details.
Pullman is a unique town and a unique part of history that deserves to be seen on any trip to Chicago. It was one of the first planned towns, and in visiting it you can get a good sense of the pros and cons of a planned community. It was also created at a point in history where American luxury rail travel converged with the growing labor movement, and gives us a good feel for the issues of the late 1800s in Chicago as well as the rest of the U.S. It especially deserves to be seen for its charming and well built homes, which exhibit a craftsmanship which is no longer seen in our day and age. It is easy to imagine, as you stroll the tree shaded streets of Pullman, what it must have been like to live and work here over a hundred years ago, when life was in many ways much simpler than it is now. Put Pullman on your list of must-see places on your next visit to Chicago!