Pullman Historic District, 111th and Cottage Grove
On February 19, 2015, the Pullman State Historic district will be declared a National Monument by President Barack Obama. This historic neighborhood began as a company town, created by the industrialist entrepreneur, George M. Pullman. Pullman was born in 1831 in Brockton, NY but moved to Albion, just east of Buffalo to assist in the carpentry business. Out of that business working on expanding the Erie Canal, Pullman’s father, Lewis, developed a method of moving and raising buildings. George took over that business and contracted with the State of New York to raise some twenty buildings so that the Canal could be widened.
In the late 1850s Pullman came to Chicago to help with the raising of buildings here. Because of severe flooding and problems with mud, many buildings needed to be raised and a sewer system installed for Chicago’s growth and prosperity. Pullman joined forces with other engineers to further this work.
Pullman’s next project was to convert railroad cars with seats into luxurious sleeping cars for the expanding railroad business, of which Chicago was a major hub. The Palace Car Company was charted in 1867 by Pullman and during the next two decades became the leading producer of sleeping cars. In addition to expanding the business, George Pullman also built a town for the workers, which included housing, a school, a church, a hotel, Hotel Florence, and other amenities making it a self-contained community, Pullman, IL in 1881.
People who travelled in the sleeping cars had to first purchase a ticket from the railroad and a separate ticket for overnight travel in the well-appointed cars. They were attended to by a legion of porters, who were African American, many of whom migrated from the south during the Great Migration. They had to attend to the sleeping berths, handle luggage and provide assistance to the passengers night and day. They were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles. They were finally able to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, becoming the first African-American labor union.
Entire blocks of buildings were raised by using huge timbers and screwjacks. The sewer system was also part of the project and was directed by engineer Ellis Chesbrough for the city’s board of Sewage Commissioners in 1856
Although Pullman’s town and industry were apart from the city, they were influenced by the labor unrest that began in the 1880s. Chicago industries were notorious for demanding long hours and providing poor working conditions. There was much unrest and protest to get an eight hour day and better working conditions that came to a climax in the Haymarket riots of 1886. This unrest and demand for better conditions reached Pullman during the recession of 1893-94. Pullman showed that his relationship with his employees was not so benevolent when he lowered the salaries of the workers while not lowering the rents that they had to pay for their lodging or even the prices for goods at the company store. This caused a strike by the workers who were aided by other railway workers’ unions. Eventually, President Grover Cleveland called in federal troops to stop the rioting.
The strike was broken, but Pullman’s reputation was tarnished. In addition, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the town could not exist as a company town in 1898 and Pullman was forced to sell off the homes that were formally annexed into Chicago as did many other townships, in 1889.
Resources for further study:
Pullman State Historic Site http://www.pullman-museum.org/
A Philip Randolph National Pullman Porter Museum http://www.aprpullmanportermuseum.org/index.html
What conditions let up to the labor riots in the 1880s and 1890s? How could the conditions have been changed? Why were the laborers so angry in Chicago and in Pullman?
George Pullman was an entrepreneur and a forward thinker. What evidence can you find that there were contradictions in his actions?
What were the advantages and disadvantages of creating a company town? What other places had company towns? How were they the same and how were they different?
What role did the Pullman cars play in the Great Migration?
What is the difference between a national monument and a national historic site?