President Barack Obama established Pullman National Monument on Chicago’s far South Side in February 2015. The site, Chicago’s only National Park unit, commemorates layers of industrial, labor, and race history that continue to the present day.
When I started working at Openlands in June 2012, I was excited that my new job would expose me to lots of places to get outside in and around Chicago. A native Detroiter, I knew precious little about Chicago’s suburbs and exurbs or about rural Illinois. Getting outside meant going up to Wisconsin or back to Michigan. In 2014, Sean and I started taking one Saturday a month between May and October to go with friends on a day hike somewhere within two hours or so of Chicago. The places we visited included Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Sagawau Canyon, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Ryerson Woods, and others. What started with a few friends grew into a Facebook group with friends of friends of friends. In 2018 the group has over fifty members.
On Sunday, June 18, 2017, our “Let’s Go Outside” group went to Pullman National Monument and a few other South Side spots.
We carpooled down from our North Side (Edgewater, Rogers Park, Lincoln Square, Uptown) and West Side (Logan Square) neighborhoods to the Visitor Center in the Historic Pullman Foundation building. The National Park Service is only one of a consortium of organizations and agencies that protect and interpret the Pullman factory sites, not to mention the neighborhood itself. Nevertheless, it was great to see the arrowhead in Chicago.
Without planning it, we showed up less than half an hour before a tour of the factory grounds and interior, offered on the first and third Sunday of each month from May to October.
Most of the factory and its grounds are owned by the State of Illinois as the Pullman State Historic Site. Despite its being state land, the interpretive tour was led by a National Park Service ranger.
We gathered just inside the gate while stragglers joined the tour. Then the ranger oriented us to Pullman’s history and the visible buildings on the site. It was her first tour. Despite the wind blowing her hat away, she did just fine.
In 1867, industrialist George Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company to manufacture luxurious sleeping cars for railroads. In 1880, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of land between Lake Calumet and the Illinois Central Line tracks and began to build a factory. This was the grand era of the American railroad, and Chicago was the undisputed center of the nation in terms of rail transportation. From the great cities of the North (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit), all rail points eventually led to Chicago. From Chicago, the Great West opened with rail lines fanning out to the other side of the continent. In this era, Chicago’s economic might stretched from the shores of Lake Michigan across the nation’s interior all the way to San Francisco.
The showpiece of the factory complex was (and remains) the administration building with its imposing clock tower. Solon Spencer Beman designed the administration and factory buildings as well as the housing units and other structures of the factory town.
For now, the only portion of Pullman that is recognized as a national monument is the clock tower building, which the state transferred to the Park Service. Under the long-term plan, the Park Service will assume control of the nearly 13-acre factory complex, but the federal agency won’t take on the liability of accepting the grounds in the current condition. (Chicago Tribune, April 20, 2017)
Eventually, the restored factory building will boast reproductions of Pullman cars and an array of visitor services.
In December 1998, a fire damaged the administration building, but happily did not destroy the structure.
Our guide pointed out that the state had installed a frisbee golf course on the factory grounds, which just felt…odd.
Throughout its history, the Pullman company was a major employer of African Americans, starting with former house slaves in the first decade after the Civil War, who were employed as porters on the cars, through to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American union.
Our guide took us into one of the huge factory buildings. In addition to the structure itself, the room held layers of historical artifacts and claims on the stories of this place by multiple organizations.
The sense of potential at Pullman National Monument is immense. So many people are passionate about the layers of history here and the stories waiting to be told or amplified with the cachet of being connected to Chicago’s first National Monument.
In addition to Chicago industrial history and nationally impactful African American history, Pullman holds an immensely important place in the history of Labor in the United States.
In 1893, even as the nearby World’s Columbian Exhibition celebrated Chicago’s phoenix-like emergence after the Great Fire, an economic downturn began to grip the United States. By the spring of 1894, Pullman had laid off or reduced wages for employees without any corresponding reduction in rents for homes in the factory-owned town. On May 11, 1894, the Pullman workers started a strike against the company. Pullman had inoculated his company against a short-term work stoppage in part by the reduction in wages. In order to press the issue since the strike was not immediately imperiling the company’s finances, the American Railway Union, which had been formed the previous year by Eugene Debs, initiated a boycott against the Pullman company. The boycott halted all trains pulling Pullman cars, which shutdown vast sections of the US rail system.
Citing the disruption of mail and food distribution across the country, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to break the strike and boycott, leading to a rash of lethal encounters that left thirty strikers dead.
The strike ended in August 1894, and in its immediate aftermath, Congress established the Labor Day holiday, beginning that year.
Our tour concluded at the same gate where it had begun. Afterward, we decided to walk around the Pullman neighborhood for a while before returning to the visitor center.
The Pullman homes were built to attract skilled laborers to work at the Pullman factory complex. Clean, attractive, boasting the latest modern conveniences (indoor plumbing), and set in a park-like streetscape by Nathan F. Barrett, the Pullman factory town was a far cry from the tenements of Chicago’s industrial slums.
In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court found the factory’s ownership of the residences illegal, and residents were given right of first refusal to purchase their homes.
Today, Pullman, now part of Chicago, remains a vibrant, close-knit neighborhood on the city’s far South Side.
Residents were arriving for Sunday services at Green Church as we wandered by. We ran into Tom Shepherd of the Southeast Environmental Taskforce, a local environmental justice organization, who inquired about what brought us to Pullman. He was pleased to hear that we had come to visit the Monument and take in the neighborhood’s sights.
The original stables feature busts of horses.
After our stroll, we returned to the visitor center to have a look at the Historic Pullman Foundation’s exhibitions.
Afterward, we drove over to 95th and the Bridge to legendary Calumet Fisheries for a lunch of smoked fish and fried smelts on a picnic table overlooking the Calumet River and the Chicago Skyway.
After lunch, we drove down to the Hegewisch neighborhood, stopped by the green schoolyard at Grissom Elementary, and then went for a hike at Hegewisch Marsh, a Chicago park that feels more like a forest preserve.
After Hegewisch, we called it a day and headed home.