Pullman: Though the factory is gone, the community remains

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A Southwest Airlines 737 takes off from Chicago's Midway Airport, flying over the remains of the Pullman plant. Jim Wrinn photo

CHICAGO – I visited the fabled Pullman Palace Car plant on the south side of Chicago on a recent weekend. It was the Historic Pullman Foundation’s 39th annual tour of homes, a chance to step inside some of the row houses where 12,000 railroad passenger car workers lived in a factory community that was so nice to live in that it was once labeled America’s “most perfect town.” It also was a chance for me to visit one of the landmarks of American railroading, the place where George M. Pullman decided to build the sleeping cars known for their high quality and smooth ride — and which made him a household name. I’m not a passenger car guy, but the trip by car from Milwaukee felt like a pilgrimage. We all owe a lot to the history that took place here. This was the epicenter of the dispute between Pullman and his workers that became the infamous Pullman strike of 1894, which led to a nationwide boycott, bloodshed, and the start of the modern labor movement.

That was on my mind as I pulled off Interstate 94 and onto a city street. Soon, I noticed the two buildings left from the factory complex. The administration building soars into the sky and one wing of the erecting shop and a portion of the car shop remain. You can tell that once, starting in the 1880s, this was a much more expansive site, filled with shop buildings, storehouses, and the like, sandwiched between the Illinois Central and the Rock Island.

I had lunch at a makeshift café inside the erecting shop, where an arts show was under way. The vaulted ceiling, metal support beams, and exposed brickwork spoke of the day when craftsmen prepared the sleeping cars of the day. Arched doorways told of the day when a transfer table moved new Pullman cars out of the shop for the first time. Photos made the images come to life. I stepped outside to take a picture on this rainy day, and in cruel irony, a Southwest Airlines 737 was on takeoff from nearby Midway Airport.

The village was more upbeat. A jazz band played from the front porch of one of the manager’s row houses. A software designer and his wife occupied one of the three-story homes. I spent a few minutes inside, but the interior was nothing like it would have been in the 1880s. It was an eclectic mix of styles and tastes. I also went into some of the homes of the workers: Most have been heavily altered from the day when machinists, carpenters, welders, and hundreds of other skilled trades lived here. At least people still live here and appreciate what a special place this is in American history.

As I walked around the village, I was impressed with the buildings that were preserved: the stables, the marketplace, the Hotel Florence (under restoration and set to reopen in 2013). This must have been an amazing place in its day.

Before I left, a northbound Amtrak train on Canadian National’s Illinois Central rails came by. It was a single-level train with one unit. There was not a sleeper in sight. I got back in my car and retraced my trip back to Milwaukee as more planes leaving Midway roared overhead.

  • Thanks, Jim, for taking us along on your trip to Pullman, IL!  

  • Pullman is a lot more than railroad history, it is also a major part of labor history that needs to be remembered.

  • I have always wanted to visit Pullman and especially what is left of the factory. If only the people would find the will and money to include a fully restored wooden car or two to show the craftsmanship that was achieved here in the Glory Days.  Several years ago, I tried to make this happen after discovering a pristine, wooden private car for sale, complete with paper wheels, and forwarding the information to the curator; nothing happened.

  • Of course, at least occasionally a Pullman built sleeper goes by the former Pullman plant on the former IC, Canadian National line on the City of New Orleans.

  • Jim, great blog.  I am priviledged to live within a couple miles of the historic Amtrack shops in Beech Grove, IN.  Everytime I drive by the shops I am awed by their architecture and history.

    If anyone is interested in all things Pullman.  A tour thru the Pullman Mansion in Michigan City, IN is worth the trip.

    Also there is a multi-billionaire who lives in Dubai who has the interior of his Boeing 757 based off the Pullman Passenger Car.  The Pullman Suite" opposing couches and overhead bins.  If you didn't know better you would think you were in a Pullman rail car.

  • jettrain:  I was not aware of a Pullman Mansion in Michigan City.  Do you have details?

  • The mansion in Michigan City, IN referred to as the Pullman Mansion is actually the Barker Mansion, built by one of the founding partners of the Haskell & Barker Company in the mid-1850's..  That later became became part of the Pullman-Standard division of Pullman and built primarily boxcars until it was shut down in the late 1960's.  I worked there during the summers of 1960 and 1963.  The site is now an outlet mall.

  • The work of the urban archaeology team from DePaul University re-fitting the cupola and walls of the administrative building was quite a feat. The Hotel Florence across 111th Street is also interesting and was Pullman's office for many years using the blinds as a manner of communicating to the managers on the north side of the street. I have arranged lunch there and a factory tour for the Teaching American History Grant. This is where history and our love of railroads meet in perfect union. We should do that as a railfan-historian connection.

    Since Jim mentioned the strike, I researched and discovered a three-cent check (no typo) representing the take home pay of a typical worker after paying Pullman for rent, fuel, and other costs.

  • To step into Pullman, Illinois, in 1894, read Francis McNamara's DEATH AT PULLMAN: AN EMILY CABOT MYSTERY.  The plot turns on the mysterious death of a young worker who may have been a company spy.  Available at amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.

  • Jim-

    Great article!  Can I have your permission to forward the link to this article to the NMRA members of the South Central Wisconsin Division of NMRA who are on a member only listserv??

  • Great article, but why didn't you take Amtrak and the Metra Electric line instead of driving?  It would have been a much more pleasant journey.  The single level train you saw was either the Illini or Saluki day train to/from Carbondale.

  • Thanks very much for the update on what is left there.

    Being a 3rd generation Chicagoan, my family knew several men who worked at Pullman in the 1880's-1920's, including one car shop senior head supervisor (millwork division). By then, an offer to live in the upper class Pullman homes was quite an honor, but several of the upper escelon supers chose to live off site, such as in the South Chicago Av at Benett Av district, which then, was a 'truck-farm' area.

    As for the 3-cent paycheck, yes that was a begining laborer's pay, but bear in mind that EVERYTHING of life was paid for by those deductions...schooling, utilities, food, housing, travel on site, and even health care. More normal pay was in the $5 to $40 per week level... in 1901, that was a very good income.

    While in college [IIT, 1970's] several of my architecture &urban planning  profs were involved in restortion of the townhouses, and had many copies of the original town and building plans. Few residents today would be willing to live per 1884, as they were begun [before all the toilets were connected, and gas lights]. I'm glad to know that the homes are now lived in decently, instead of the slums they were in the 1970's.

    Agree with CSSHEGEWISCH about much labor "relations" to be remembered there: The massive rabble-rousing and violence abuse by the incipient Socialist labor movement, as well as the 'absolutist' controls by the Pullman corporation over workers life there. The workers were allowed to be highly self educated, but then they were still willing to be lead to revolt. Both sides of that history needs to be taught...

    you see, Jim, your article brings back ALL HISTORY that is railroad history... and is the American history therewith.

  • @hydrian:  Good point about looking at both sides of the issue.  Real history rarely fits on a bumper sticker!

Pullman: Though the factory is gone, the community remains