Labor history tends to get short shrift in history books.
The Pullman National Monument Preservation Society, created by Barack Obama’s presidential proclamation in 2015, is trying to change that. During the Great Pullman Strike’s 125th anniversary, the group is giving guided tours each month through October.
Before it became a Chicago neighborhood, Pullman was seen by outsiders as “The World’s Most Perfect Town.” It was conceived as a utopian company town where industrialist George Pullman built beautiful brick houses for his workers, schools, parks, a library, a theater, and the Midwest’s first indoor shopping mall. It was conceived as an idyllic alternative to the slums of the city of Chicago.
But Pullman governed with a heavy hand and workers living there were chafed by his strict rules governing every part of their social and economic lives. Liquor was banned and no one had the right to vote. Finally, after an economic crisis in 1893 prompted the boss to lower wages by 25 percent while raising rents, thousands walked out of Pullman’s factories—some of whom were starving.
The downtrodden workers gained the help of iconic labor leader Eugene Debs’ American Railroad Union and the strike snowballed into a two-month-long nationwide rebellion in 1894 that historian Jill Lepore has called “one of the single biggest labor actions in American history.”
The boycott froze the railroads for more than a month and eventually stopped the delivery of U.S. mail, which led President Grover Cleveland to deploy federal troops to Chicago to break the strike. They did so violently; with 26 civilians killed before the labor stoppage ended on August 2, 1894. Debs became a populist hero while jailed for his role in the Pullman Strike. He later founded the Socialist Party and ran for president four times, earning a million votes in 1912.
In 1898, the Illinois State Supreme Court broke up Pullman’s company town. The next year it was annexed by the city of Chicago.
The 2.5-hour walking tour of Pullman is designed to give visitors a sense of what it was like in 1894. Many of the red-brick structures still exist: from George Pullman’s upscale hotel to to the massive factory clocktower to dozens of houses—many of which are currently occupied. The tour also describes the poor tenements house of “Poverty Row,” (now the site of an artist loft development) and the former outskirts of “Bumtown” where workers secretly planned the strike.
The next tour is scheduled for July 13 at noon. Admission is $25, and each ticket includes post-tour reception and dessert.