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Utopia Derailed Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
by Arthur Melville Pearson

How the 1894 Pullman strike ended one magnate's vision of a working-class paradise


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The last-known photograph of George Pullman (ca. 1895) (Courtesy of the Pullman State Historic Site, Paul Petraitis Collection)


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The town of Pullman (ca. 1898) failed as a utopian community. (Courtesy of the Pullman State Historic Site, Paul Petraitis Collection)

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Students and volunteers unearth the Arcade Building site. Clockwise from left: Bradley Berry, site director Jane Eva Baxter, Jennifer Norman, and Michael Marshall. (Ken Carl)

Whatever 19th-century railcar magnate George Pullman took with him to the grave is likely to remain a mystery. Fearful that Labor-movement extremists would desecrate his corpse, Pullman left instructions that his lead-lined casket be covered in tar paper and asphalt, and laid in a massive vault of concrete reinforced with steel rails in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. Over this tomb stands a towering Corinthian column with the name "Pullman" carved in its base. Fortunately, the historical record beneath the other monument bearing his name, the town of Pullman, is far more accessible. In what is today Chicago's far South Side, archaeologists are unearthing the remnants of a model community. Built to be "beautiful and harmonious," it was intended to be a place where, in the words of its founder, "strikes and other troubles that periodically convulse the world of labor would not need to be feared."

The London Times was not alone in hailing Pullman as "the most perfect town in the world," at least until a nationwide economic depression compelled the town's founder to lay off one-third of his workforce and slash the wages of the remainder by an average of 30 percent—without reducing rents. Unable to afford their beautiful homes, not to mention food and other necessities, workers walked off the job in the summer of 1894. Their appeal to the fledgling American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, resulted in the union calling on its members to stop handling any trains that included Pullman cars. As Pullman all but monopolized passenger railcar operations, train traffic virtually came to a halt across the country.

Refusing to negotiate any kind of settlement, Pullman won the battle but lost the war. The strike petered out after a few months, due in no small part to aggressive intervention by the federal government. Public opinion, however, had turned against Pullman for his hard-line stance on his workers. A federal strike commission likewise laid much of the blame at Pullman's doorstep, and the Illinois Supreme Court ordered him to sell off the residential sections of his town, his self-proclaimed "greatest work."

"This site affords opportunities to study the daily life of workers as well as class distinctions in this richly textured 19th-century planned community," says Jane Eva Baxter, associate professor and chair of DePaul University's anthropology department. It is also important to the present-day residents of Pullman, many of whom are intimately acquainted with the town's history and worked to save the neighborhood from demolition in the 1960s. "It provides a chance to examine a rare instance of a working-class community of today rising up to save itself from the wrecking ball," she says.

Arthur Melville Pearson is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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