The hub of George Pullman’s thriving railcar industry could become Chicago’s first national park.
By National Parks Magazine
On a sunny and blustery spring afternoon, Arthur Pearson shows off his neighborhood of 16 years, Chicago’s historic Pullman District, which could be the setting for the country’s next national historical park.
Nestled in a semi-bucolic nook minutes west of the Dan Ryan Expressway on the city’s far South Side (immortalized in Jim Croce’s hit song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” as “the baddest part of town”), the neighborhood sprang up in 1881 to house about 12,000 laborers and other employees from railcar mogul George M. Pullman’s Pullman Car Works. Residents had schools, theaters, a library, and parks at their disposal, and each one enjoyed indoor plumbing and gas service. Pullman’s sprawling factory and administration building loomed nearby. Formerly the center of manufacturing and distribution for his upscale railcars, which became ubiquitous in late 19th-century America, the adjacent structures now sit empty and in various states of coddled disrepair just north of 111th Street.
After making his name by raising and relocating buildings in his native New York State and then in Chicago, Pullman partnered with a politician acquaintance and began converting railroad passenger cars into more comfortable traveling quarters. They were few and modestly appointed, though, compared with the scores of rolling luxury cabins Pullman would construct during the country’s railroad boom. Beginning in the mid-1850s, the period of tremendous growth ramped up after the Civil War and continued into the early 20th century.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in mid-April of 1865, one of Pullman’s inventions squired the president’s body back to Springfield, Illinois. Boosted in part by the considerable press attention that solemn journey garnered, business poured in as railroads leased more and more of Pullman’s dining cars, sleeping cars, parlor cars, reclining cars, and hotel room cars. By the early 1890s, with roughly 2,000 of his railcars in use, his empire was worth a reported $62 million.
Then came the so-called Panic of 1893 and an ensuing economic depression. Faced with a sharp decline in orders, Pullman was forced to slash wages and fire thousands of workers—which he did without instituting a corresponding drop in rent for those already feeling oppressed by his relentless price gouging and iron-fisted rule. When disgruntled Pullman employees went on strike in 1894, their angry defiance of Pullman’s unjust labor practices spread nationally. Ultimately, 150,000 workers in 465 labor unions and 27 states joined forces to effectively shut down America’s railways. The interruption lasted only a few months. After national and state troops were marshaled to quell the unrest, more than a dozen people were shot dead and the protest ended.
In the years following the Pullman strike, the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters was established, creating the first African-American labor union and producing jobs that helped fuel the migration from the South to northern cities.
Today, the tree-lined and sporadically rehabbed residential quarters of the Historic Pullman Landmark District are relatively vibrant. As Pearson, a community activist and a member of the Pullman Civic Organization, stands before the expansive Florence Hotel, a worker shouts down to a cohort from the high slate rooftop, and heavy equipment is parked near mounds of gravel. Owned since 1991 by the state of Illinois and named for Pullman’s favorite daughter, the Florence is supposedly nearing the end of a multi-million-dollar, years-long transformation. When it’s finally finished, Pearson says, the site is poised to be one of Pullman’s chief visitor attractions.
Pullman is already one of 2,500 sites designated as national historic landmarks, and Pearson and others envision vast improvements to the neighborhood if it becomes Chicago’s first national park. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., whose district encompasses the entire Pullman neighborhood, recently introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives calling for a feasibility study, the first step toward a park’s creation. Pullman boosters cite the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts as a model for a historic manufacturing industry that has infused life into a neglected urban area. A more grandiose comparison came from Jackson himself, who declared, “We could become the Grand Canyon of the South Side.” Or at least, perhaps, the Colonial Williamsburg.
Lynn McClure, director of NPCA’s Midwest regional office, wonders how Chicago has held out for so long. “Not to have a national park presence in the third-largest city in this country is terrible,” she says. “There is so much history in Chicago, and the important and unique stories at Pullman are just waiting to be retold by the best storytellers in the country: the National Park Service.”
In the meantime, hopeful locals say, there’s a perception problem to overcome. Lionel Kimble, who grew up in Chicago and teaches its history at Chicago State University, is one of those locals. “Many people see the South Side of Chicago as a location for violence, crime, gangs, and the like,” he says. And parts of it do indeed fit that description—including areas that abut Historic Pullman, whose relative safety, commutability, and atypical cohesiveness Pearson touts. As he strolls past a lawn-mowing resident, he smiles and shouts a hello. Then he’s on to the Greenstone Church, with its copper spire and tiny congregation, before coming to a stop outside the restored late 19th-century brick home of Michael Duck. A veteran Chicago beat cop, Duck has lived in the Pullman District since 1974, and believes national park status seems like “a real benefit.”
While even Pearson is unsure if Jackson’s House resolution is ever going to get out of committee, he nonetheless envisions a brighter future for his longtime home. “What we’re hoping for with a national park is a little better master planning and the identifying of what partners are available to help us develop the critical pieces,” he says. “But it’s not going to happen overnight.”