Pullman – America’s First Planned Industrial Community

By Donna K. Keesling

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Pullman?” Do you think of elegant railway sleeper cars from the early twentieth century? Or perhaps you think of George M. Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company. You may be familiar with the Pullman porters and the strike of 1894.

While the focus of this article is on Pullman, Illinois – the first model industrial town in the United States – the stories of all these other “Pullmans” are intertwined with the establishment of this town outside of Chicago.

George Mortimer Pullman was born in 1831 in Salem Cross Roads, New York. When his father died in 1853, George took over the family business of moving buildings. In 1859, he and his partner Charles Henry Moore were awarded a contract to raise the Matteson Hotel in Chicago by five feet. While in Chicago, he began work that would set him on a path to success. He had previously formed a partnership with Benjamin Field, a former state senator who had started a sleeping car business. The Chicago, Alton, and St. Louis Railroad agreed to a proposal from George to modify two of their rail cars to make them more appealing to and comfortable for travelers. The modifications were such a success that the railroad ordered an additional six cars from the Field & Pullman company.

In 1860, George headed West to sell food, provisions, and services to gold miners in Colorado. He returned to Chicago in 1863 and focused his efforts on his sleeping car business. According to author Kenneth J. Schoon, Field & Pullman’s goal was to “make their cars so elegant that passengers would not want to travel on any other company’s car.”[1] By 1866, Field & Pullman had built forty-eight sleeper cars. Field withdrew from the partnership in 1867 and George incorporated the new firm as the Pullman Palace Car Company.

George Pullman was of the opinion that he would be able to attract the most skilled workers to the Pullman Palace Car Company by providing a superior working and living environment.[2] In 1879, he purchased 4,000 acres located approximately thirteen miles south of Chicago, Illinois. The tract, consisting of open prairie and marsh land, was along the western shore of Lake Calumet and was bordered by the Illinois Central rail line. This location provided access to markets via the railroad and by sea through Lake Calumet’s connection to Lake Michigan.

To design and build his industrial town, George hired landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett to design the town layout, Solon Spencer Beman as the building architect, and civil engineer Benzette Williams to plan the water, sewer, and gas lines, and site drainage.

In contrast to most urban industrial communities, Barrett designed a parklike setting for Pullman. The streets were tree-lined and green space was included throughout the community. Flower gardens and a man-made lagoon surrounded the commercial buildings.

Because Pullman wanted the buildings of the town to be practical and aesthetically pleasing, Beman designed houses in the “simple, yet elegant Queen Anne style” and included Romanesque arches in the commercial buildings.[3] The buildings were built of brick with pitched and mansard slate roofs.

The first non-industrial building to be completed was the Hotel Florence, named after George’s daughter. The first floor contained the lobby, dining room, kitchen, a parlor for women, and a reading and billiards room for men. Guest rooms and suites were on the second through fourth floors.

The 700-foot long Administration Clock Tower Building was built in 1880 as the manufacturing center of Pullman. It was an “unusually ornate industrial building designed to sit in a park-like setting.”[4] The central core of the building housed the administrative houses. On either side, were single-story wings that were used for construction of passenger rail cars.

The two-story Market Hall building contained stalls for purveyors of fresh meats and vegetables, a lunch counter, and a meeting hall. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1892. A replacement, with an additional third floor, was quickly built in 1893.

Homes for the workers, primarily row houses of various sizes, were in areas that were separate from the industrial buildings. Residents, for a rental fee, enjoyed homes with gas and water, sanitary facilities, and an abundance of sunlight and fresh air. Their homes included front and back yards. Home maintenance and daily garbage collection was included with the rent.[5]

Pullman also included a non-denominational church – the  Greenstone Church – featuring a façade of green stone that was quarried in Pennsylvania. When the town was completed in 1884, it had more than 1,000 homes and public buildings.

Due to a failing economy, factory orders declined in the 1890s. Pullman employee wages were cut, but their rents were not reduced. On May 11, 1894, Pullman workers went on strike. The company resisted concessions in their negotiations with the striking workers, leading to a boycott of the handling of Pullman cars by all American Railway Union (ARU) workers. Because the strike and subsequent boycott affected the delivery of the United States mail, the federal government intervened and secured an injunction against the boycott. In mid-July, the boycott ended. The Pullman strike played a pivotal role in labor history by shaping the American labor movement and spurring the national adoption of Labor Day.[6]

In August of 1894, the state of Illinois sued the Pullman Company, alleging that the company’s ownership and operation of the town violated its corporate charter. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed in 1898 and ordered the company to sell all non-industrial land holdings in the town.[7] The residences and public buildings were all sold by 1909.

George M. Pullman died in 1897 after suffering a heart attack. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, was named the president of the Pullman Company. Under Lincoln’s leadership, Pullman’s last major competitor was acquired. As of 1899, all railroad sleeping cars were made by the Pullman Company.

The company continued to grow through the 1920s. However, with the advent of automobile travel, orders for new rail cars began to decline. Throughout the 1940s, the Pullman Company factories consolidated and downsized. By 1957, most of the factory was closed.

In the 1960s, the Roseland Chamber of Commerce recommended that the buildings in Pullman be razed to allow for the construction of a new industrial park. Concerned Pullman residents formed the Pullman Civic Organization and worked to save the community by writing newspaper articles, establishing a community archive, and convincing government officials that Pullman should be designated a historic district or landmark. In 1969, South Pullman was granted landmark status by the State of Illinois. The Pullman Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. The entire Pullman district received National Historic Landmark District designation in 1971.

Pullman National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service (NPS), was established by presidential proclamation on February 19, 2015. On Labor Day weekend in September 2021, the Pullman National Monument visitor center in the Administration Clock Tower Building was opened to the public. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources owns and operates the surrounding twelve acres as the Pullman State Historic Site. This historic site includes several remaining factory buildings and the Hotel Florence.

In addition to visiting the Pullman National Monument (https://www.nps.gov/pull/index.htm), you can learn about Pullman – the man, the company, and the community – at the Historic Pullman Foundation’s Exhibit Hall (https://www.pullmanil.org/), the Hotel Florence – Pullman State Historic Site, and at the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum (https://aprpullmanportermuseum.org/).

The Pullman National Monument Foundation Document includes an excellent summary of the importance of the model town: “Industrialist George Pullman’s vision of an integrated manufacturing complex and residential community that was pleasant, efficient, and profitable was a late 19th century experiment in social and economic planning. Heralded by some as brilliant, and others as oppressive, this experiment still influences urban planners today.”[8]

[1] Kenneth J. Schoon, Pullman: The Man, the Company, the Historical Park, (Charleston: The History Press, 2021), 34.

[2] “The Town of Pullman,” Pullman National Monument, last updated May 18, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/pull/learn/historyculture/the-town-of-pullman.htm.

[3] “The Town of Pullman,” Pullman National Monument, last updated May 18, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/pull/learn/historyculture/the-town-of-pullman.htm.

[4] “Places,” Pullman National Monument, last updated March 7, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/pull/learn/historyculture/places.htm.

[5] “The History of Pullman,” Historic Pullman Foundation, https://www.pullmanil.org/the-history-of-pullman/.

[6] “Home,” Historic Pullman Foundation, https://www.pullmanil.org/.

[7] Pullman National Monument Foundation Document, (National Park Service, 2017), 28.

[8] Pullman National Monument Foundation Document, (National Park Service, 2017), 16.