October 30, 2007

CHICAGO—There’s only one place in Illinois where you can enjoy old-fashioned Christmas cheer, an authentic 19th-century small town and a hands-on-learning experience in both rail history and labor history—all at the same time.

It’s the Historic Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side during its 12th Annual Candlelight House Walk scheduled for Sunday, December 9, from 3:30 to 7 p.m.

The tour, which costs $40 per person, includes a buffet, desserts, a silent auction and an inside look at five restored 1880s urban row houses plus Pullman’s majestic Greenstone Church.

It also includes a big dose of railroad-labor history. The Town of Pullman, as it originally was named, was intended by its owner, railcar builder George M. Pullman, to be a state-of-the-art housing estate for the skilled craftsmen who built his innovative railroad sleeping cars.

But thanks to Pullman’s hapless over-reaching, the town became a hothouse for the development of the nation’s young labor movement and the birthplace of one of its most dramatic episodes—the nationwide Pullman strike of 1893-94.

During the Candlelight Walk, visitors can tour some of the restored classic brick town houses designed between 1880 and 1889 by famed Philadelphia architect Solon S. Beman. More than 1,500 of the handsome row houses were built by George M. Pullman to house the workers who built his famed sleeping cars in an adjacent factory complex. During the tour, five of the homes will be opened for visitor inspection by the private owners who restored them to their 19th-century elegance.

Pullman wanted his Town of Pullman, which at that time lay outside the Chicago city limits, to be a “model town” where workers and their families would live in attractive, clean and healthy conditions instead of the slums that were typical at that time. While most American industrial employees were living in firetrap shanties or urban tenements with muddy streets in front and outhouses in back, Pullman’s employees were enjoying the latest advances in the art of living: handsome masonry dwellings, paved streets, indoor plumbing, safe gas lighting, steam heat and a well stocked central marketplace that might well be the ancestor of the modern shopping mall. An international sanitary exposition even awarded Pullman the title “World’s Most Perfect Town.”

But George M. Pullman didn’t open his model town entirely out of the goodness of his heart.

“His stated intention was to create a set of surroundings in which employees would not join unions or strike for higher wages,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The union movement was starting to sweep the country during the 1880s, and business owners were terrified of ‘agitators,’ ‘anarchists’ and ‘syndicalists,’” as they called the labor organizers of the time. Pullman thought he could keep his workers docile by moving them into better housing.”

Unfortunately, when a financial panic hit the country and orders for Pullman cars dropped in late 1893, Pullman’s pro-employee nerve failed him and he showed his workers another side of his character.

“The company cut the employees’ paychecks 25 per cent but kept charging the same rent for its houses,” Szabo said.

Pullman’s outraged workers responded by going on strike, and their local job action quickly snowballed into a watershed in the American rail labor movement. Eugene V. Debs, a locomotive fireman and labor activist from Terre Haute, Ind., made Pullman the centerpiece of his strategy to consolidate all U.S. railroad employees into what he called “one big union” that would give them enormous bargaining strength against what had become the nation’s largest and most powerful industry.

To support the Pullman strikers, Debs ordered railroad employees not to operate trains that had Pullman cars in their consists. Most operating employees complied, and hundreds of sleeping cars were set out on depot sidings during the bitter winter of 1893-94 before President Grover Cleveland ordered out the National Guard to put down the strike on grounds that the U.S. Mail was being delayed.

“Debs even did jail time as a result of the strike,” Szabo said.

“But he achieved another victory that may have been even more important: After George M. Pullman died in 1897, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers could not own an entire company town. The Town of Pullman was incorporated into the City of Chicago and became a regular neighborhood where workers owned their own homes instead of renting them from the company.

“Almost all of those homes are still there, owned and cared for by proud people who love to open them to visitors,” Szabo said. “I urge everyone who cherishes the heritage of the American labor movement, and particularly railroad employees, to visit Historic Pullman at least once. The holiday Candlelight House Walk is an ideal opportunity.”

Reservations for the House Walk can be made by calling (773) 785-8901 or by going to www.pullmanil.org. The Pullman Historic District is located four blocks west of I-94 (Calumet/Bishop Ford Freeway) at exit 66A (111th Street). Tours begin at the Visitors Center at 112th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Pullman also is accessible by the Metra Electric commuter rail line’s 111th Street/Pullman station and the 115th Street/Kensington station.