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.