Pullman is a Place, Too

Oh yes it is, and thanks for pointing that out Chicago Joe, if that IS your real name. I mentioned below that Pullman’s factory was located south of Chicago. In 1880 that was true, when Chicago’ population was half a million people. Today Pullman is a neighborhood of Chicago, way down south, off the Bishop Ford Expressway at about 103rd Street. Once it was a rural industrial outpost, built by a man who — like many others of his day — hoped to create a utopia but ended up creating, well, just another place on Earth.

So-called “company towns” make fascinating study. Some of them, specifically mining towns, happened by accident: the town cropped up because that’s where the coal happened to be. Others, the more interesting ones in my estimation, were created intentionally by entrepreneurs who hoped to change American industrial life for the better. Capitalism was the engine of these places, though in the intellectual fuel mix was at least a little cutting-edge Marxist and Rousseauian theory. Pullman was such a place.

George Pullman, like his contemporary Andrew Carnegie, was a social thinker as well as an industrialist. He built his factory out in the country, away from downtown Chicago in hopes of a.) creating an enlightened, poverty-less society where everyone could be productive and, b.) keeping his workers and their families free from the morally corrupting influences of the city. In that way the community of Pullman resembled the religious utopias that dotted the American landscape in the 1800’s, just a capital-industrial version. Just like a lot of Shaker villages, Pullman’s town was an exercise in ambition and idealism, the embodiment of the very American idea that given enough space, fresh air and good intentions humanity itself — just perhaps — could be reinvented.

To that end Pullman hired cutting-edge architects and builders to design and construct the finest worker facilities ever conceived. His factory was state-of-the-art. His workers’ homes were likewise: spacious, heated, plumbed and electrified — luxurious by any 1880’s standard. You can still see some of them if you visit. The executive, managerial and worker living units (those that are still standing) are all carefully laid out amid what used to be the town’s churches and theaters, shops and hotels. They were and are both beautiful and inspiring. So much so that Pullman’s town was a main attraction at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition. The gigantic and magnificent Corliss engine that was unveiled there became the power source for the whole town. Oh I get chills just thinking about that thing.

Unfortunately Pullman’s perfect town was not to last. Reality of the economic kind intruded as it always must, and destroyed Pullman’s dream forever. It came in the form of the Panic of 1893, a railroad crisis which closely resembled the recent housing crisis inasmuch as there were too many too-expensive and under-capitalized railroads in America, very few of which could be run profitably. When the market finally became aware of that fact, stocks tumbled. Railroads closed and demand for Pullman’s cars plummeted. As a result the revenues from the factory could no longer support worker salaries or upkeep of the town.

In 1894 the employees, angry that their hours had been cut but their rents had stayed the same, went on strike. The strike lasted 83 days and had national implications as it led to a general boycott of Pullman cars and walkouts by other sympathetic unions. Rail travel virtually stopped everywhere but the East Coast. As the strike wore on the workers became violent. Eventually the National Guard had to be called in to quell the rioting. Some days troops violently suppressed crowds, on others mobs attacked Guard encampments. In the end the strike and ensuing chaos led to hundreds of injuries and some 30 deaths.

Pullman felt deeply guilty but also deeply angry at his workers for, at least as he saw it, betraying a sacred compact and abandoning the great project. So he refused to let them return to work. Ultimately the Federal Government forced his hand. The factory reopened but the spirit of the the place was wrecked forever. Under government pressure Pullman was forced to give up ownership of the town. The land and housing was all sold to private owners along with all of the company-run businesses.

Pullman died three years later a broken man. Rich, but broken. His family, terrified that some of his former workers would dig up his body and drag it through the streets, had him buried some 40 feet down in a block of concrete under layers of railroad ties and rails. His grave marker is something to behold. Check it out the next time you’re in Chicago, at the back of Graceland Cemetery at the corner of Clark and Irving Park Road, where most of Chicago’s Victorian-era movers and shakers are planted. And after that go visit the Pullman neighborhood where glimmers of Pullman’s grand, beautiful and deeply flawed vision still remain.

12 thoughts on “Pullman is a Place, Too”

      1. WSU is a well known ag university — have done much research on wheat, apples & pears (Tree Fruit Research station in Wenatchee, WA is an extension that has done much well known research on apples and pears).

    1. It is, Eva. Pullman’s story is one of those great American tragedies. I’m having fun telling it!


      – Joe

  1. More of the fascinating stuff you never seem to run out of!

    Reminds me of much of the childhood that I spent at IBM Country Club in Poughkeepsie, NY. IBM didn’t do a company town — the town was already there and ready to grow and adapt to meet IBM’s needs but they bought god-only-knows-how-many acres of rolling hills and lawns and woods and installed every conceivable past time anyone could hope for and plopped a gigantic field house with a swimming pool, tennis court and a couple golf courses in the middle of it.

    This playland was completely egalitarian. It was open to the janitorial staff from all of their industrial facilities in the area, the assembly line folks, the engineers (just about anyone who worked for IBM then was some sort of engineer), the army of salespeople and all the executives. Taking my ballroom dancing classes and performing in plays I never had any idea whose kids were whose. The idea was to raise everyone’s kids as the next generation of movers and shakers. The real human potential movement.

    It was quite wonderful and matched the stories my dad told of the senior Tom Watson getting so enthusiastic at meetings scheduled to roll out new products that he’d give everyone spontaneous across the board raises. But those were the heady post war years. Later, the business management folks took over. And the stories of we-built-an-empire-together turned to what brand of corporate BS are they up to now. My father’s generation retired in good comfort from the stock portfolios they were liberally benefited with but pretty bitter and disillusioned about the collegial spirit that had long since evaporated.

    I understand the real estate that was the country club is now all broken up into housing. I think it became restricted to certain classes of employees before they finally pulled the plug. I wish I knew more about how that all transpired but I had left the area and had no continuing tie to IBM before that all happened.

    1. Yes you still see plenty of incidences of that same spirit — to create tightly knit working communities — to this day. From corporations to mega churches, this sort of things still goes on. Not as far as Pullman went of course…and maybe that’s for the best!

      – Joe

  2. Hey Joe:
    Fascinating history – thanks for letting us know, but one question:
    when you do a piece like this, could you footnote it, or provide sources? You are obviously a man for all seasons, and we benefit by it. And, when we come across a piece of yours like this, well, maybe some further reading on the likes of George Pullman would be in order. This would apply to the more science oriented articles, too! Thanks, again!

    1. Hey Pat!

      I’m not a great footnoter. It’s not that I don’t have sources, it’s just that I write so much of this so quickly, it’s something I never really have the desire to do. I’ll always make book recommendations for anyone who’s interested. For the posts you mentioned check out “Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning”. It’s informative if not terribly compelling from a prose standpoint. “George M. Pullman: Palace Car Magnate” is similar, but you can get a Kindle edition on the cheap!

      The science is harder since I get a lot of that from friends/clients who are working food scientists. I just call them up and ask them questions. A bunch comes from Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher too, and then also papers on various technical aspects of food science that I find online. But ask me if you’re curious and I’ll do my best to provide more sources. Check the book club post for some specific titles!


      – Joe

  3. Of course residence in Pullman was a requirement for employment even though rents were cheaper outside of town. Alcohol was prohibited, except at the fancy hotel that served visiting executives and ever shop in town was owned by Pullman.

    He may have been well intentioned but the faults make it easy to question his motives. He had total control over the lives of his employees and living isolated from the big city made changing jobs a hurdle many could not clear.

    1. Very true. Indeed after the whole house of cards came crashing down, congressional investigators agreed that his “paternalism” went to far and that the whole experiment was “un-American.” A lot of people at the time couldn’t decide whether the town of Pullman was a capitalist or a socialist experiment gone horribly wrong. Whatever it was, it’s true we’re better off without it. One can dream of utopia, but implementing it requires an impractical, to say nothing of immoral, level of control.

      Thanks again!

      – Joe

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