September 6, 2007

When people talk about the rise of the railroad labor movement in America, two names immediately leap to mind: Eugene V. Debs and the town of Pullman, Ill.

Debs (1855-1926),a locomotive fireman from Terre Haute, Ind., believed railroad workers would never prevail over management until they were organized into “one big union,” the American Railway Union, or ARU, which he founded in 1893.

Pullman was the “model town” just outside Chicago built by inventor and manufacturer George M. Pullman in the late 1880s as the site where his employees would build his famous “Pullman Palace Sleeping Cars.” To keep the workers contented and make sure they didn’t join unions, Pullman hired famed Philadelphia architect H.H. Richardson to design 1,000 workers’ town houses with indoor plumbing, running water, gas lighting and sturdy brick construction—amenities out of reach of typical industrial employees at that time.

But the dreams of both men clashed—and then unraveled—in the winter of 1893-94. A financial panic seized the country, drying up capital and blunting business expansion. As orders for his sleeping cars fell, Pullman cut his employees’ wages—but refused to cut the rent he charged them for their houses. The men walked out and Debs walked in, organizing a nationwide sympathy strike in which members of his ARU—brakemen, switchmen, engineers and firemen—refused to operate trains containing Pullman cars.

Pullman never recovered from the shock of his employees’ rejection of the company-town concept. He died four years later. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled company towns illegal, the City of Chicago annexed Pullman and the houses went up for sale in the open real-estate market.

Today those houses are still there in a restored and reviving neighborhood known as Chicago’s Historic Pullman District. Some of the best of those houses will be open for inspection the weekend of October 13-14, when the Historic Pullman Foundation and the Pullman Civic Organization hold their annual House Tour. Residents will open their houses to visitors to visitors between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., and guides will explain in detail how the homes were designed and constructed to exacting standards that enabled them to survive through 120 years of labor strife, wars, depressions, urban decline and recovery.

Advance tickets to the Pullman House Tour are available at $17 each through Oct. 11 and may be ordered over the House Tour Information Line at (773) 785-8901. Tickets bought on a walk-up basis are $20. Senior citizens are eligible for the $17 admission at all times. Proceeds will be used to continue restoration efforts in the Historic Pullman District, which is a city, state and national landmark. For tickets and information, go to

The Pullman Historic District, centered around the intersection of 111th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue, can be reached from the 111th Street exit of I-94, the Bishop Ford Freeway. Plenty of free parking is available. Or you can ride Metra Electric straight to Pullman’s “front door” at 111th and Cottage Grove.

“I strongly recommend that members of our union take the time to visit Historic Pullman,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “It’s one of the shrines of the railroad labor movement and the site of one of its greatest dramas. Just as George Pullman’s dream of a model town went on to a new life as a reviving urban neighborhood, much of Eugene Debs’s dream of a great multi-craft railroad union lives on in today’s UTU.”