Chicago Remains to Be Seen

George Pullman

George Pullman was a Chicago industrialist, inventor of the Pullman railroad car, and creator of an entire town for his workers, including housing, shopping areas, schools, churches, theaters, parks, a hotel and a library.

But when Pullman cut his workers' wages, but didn't lower their rent, the resulting strike crippled railroad traffic across the country, and resulted in the federal government sending in troops to keep the peace and keep the trains running.

Pullman invented a "sleeper car" to be used on railroads -- essentially a passenger car with seats that could be converted into semi-private beds to make nighttime travel more comfortable. In 1862, Pullman established the Pullman Palace Car Company to build the sleeper cars. In addition to the basic model, other Pullman cars featured carpeting, draperies, upholstered chairs, libraries and card tables, and an unparalleled level of customer service.

The Pullman sleeper car gained national attention when the body of President Abraham Lincoln was transported after his assassination in 1865 from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Ill., in a Pullman car. Orders began to increase for the sleeper cars, despite the fact that the sleeper cost more than five times the price of a regular railway car. Building on his success, Pullman also introduced the first dining car in 1867 -- basically a sleeper car with an attached kitchen and dining area.

In 1880, with his business booming, Pullman bought 4,000 acres near Lake Calumet, about 15 miles south of Chicago, for $800,000. He hired Solon Spencer Beman to design his new manufacturing plant there and, in an effort to lessen problems related to labor unrest and poverty, he also built a town adjacent to his factory. Bemen designed 1,300 buildings for the town -- the first planned industrial community in the United States -- which Pullman hoped would provide his workers with a socially and physically healthy environment. The centerpiece of the complex was the Administration Building and its man-made lake. The Hotel Florence, named for Pullman's daughter, was built nearby.

Pullman believed that the country air and fine facilities without agitators, saloons and city vice districts would result in a happy, loyal workforce. The model planned community became a leading attraction during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and caused a national sensation. Pullman was praised by the national press for his benevolence and vision. As pleasant as the community may have been, Pullman expected the town to make money. By 1892 the community, profitable in its own right, was valued at over $5 million. An estimated 6,000 Pullman employees lived there, with an equal number of dependents.

But there was no question about who ruled the town where the Pullman employees were required to live, even though cheaper rentals could be found in neighboring communities. Pullman prohibited independent newspapers, alcohol, public speeches, town meetings or open discussion. His inspectors regularly entered homes to check for cleanliness and could terminate leases on 10 days notice. The church stood empty since no approved denomination would pay rent, and no other congregation was allowed.

When his business profits began falling in 1894, during the depression that followed the Panic of 1893, Pullman cut hundreds of jobs and reduced wages -- but not the rents or prices in his town. When workers failed to reach an agreement with Pullman, 2,000 of them walked off the job on May 11, 1894, and sought the support of the American Railway Union. The union responded by declaring that it would no longer work on any trains that included Pullman cars.

The strike crippled national railroad traffic, causing the federal government to intervene by forbidding all boycotts, and sending soldiers to Chicago to get the trains running again. The tense atmosphere and anger of the Pullman workers resulted in considerable violence and vandalism directed at the Pullman Company. Union President Eugene V. Debs was arrested and imprisoned for failing to follow the federal anti-boycott injunction.

The strike ended in July 1894, primarily because the ARU was unable to get the support of other labor unions. A national commission was formed to study the causes of the 1894 strike, and found Pullman's paternalism partly to blame and Pullman's company town -- which had once been praised as a model industrial community -- to be "un-American." In 1898, the Supreme Court of Illinois forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was annexed to Chicago the following year.

Pullman died of a heart attack at the age of 66 in 1897, only three years after the strike. Fearing that some of his former employees or other labor supporters might try to dig up his body, his family arranged for his remains to be placed in a lead-lined mahogany coffin, which was then sealed inside a block of concrete. At the cemetery, a large pit had been dug at the family plot. At its base and walls were 18 inches of reinforced concrete. The coffin was lowered, and covered with asphalt and tarpaper. More concrete was poured on top, followed by a layer of steel rails bolted together at right angles, and another layer of concrete. The entire burial process took two days. His monument, featuring a Corinthian column flanked by curved stone benches, was designed by Solon Spencer Bemen, the architect of the company town of Pullman.

After Pullman's death, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, became company president. The company closed its factory in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago in 1955.

The Pullman neighborhood was named a Chicago Landmark district on Oct. 16, 1972. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 8, 1969, and declared a National Historic Landmark on Dec. 30, 1970.

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