This Labor Day, Celebrate Chicago’s Pullman Historic District

Posted on: August 29th, 2014 by Katherine Flynn 3 Comments

Founded in 1880, Pullman was America’s first planned community. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Founded in 1880, Pullman was America’s first planned model industrial community.

Labor Day: one last chance for beach vacations, barbecues, and making the most of summer’s warm weather before the autumn chill sets in. What many Americans probably don’t realize, however, is that the origins of this holiday weren’t nearly as idyllic.

As it so happens, the roots of Labor Day are closely tied to one of our National Treasures, Chicago’s Pullman National Historic District.

Pullman, the first planned model industrial community in America’s history, was founded as a company town in 1880 to house workers in industrialist George Pullman’s factory, which produced the famous Pullman Palace luxury rail cars. A bloody 1894 strike pitted workers against the company after Pullman cut wages and laid off employees without lowering rents. The conflict resulted in dozens of deaths, the shutdown of rail traffic across much of the country, the intervention of the U.S. Army, and, ultimately, the dissolution of Pullman as a company town.

Legislation for a national Labor Day holiday passed unanimously in Congress on June 28, 1894. While the movement for a national Labor Day holiday had been growing for some time, starting in September 1892 with a New York union workers’ strike in which workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday, the Pullman conflict brought the issue to a head. President Grover Cleveland, concerned that the public would view him as anti-labor following his crackdown on the strike, hoped that the holiday would appease workers, both in Pullman and across the country.

Now, a push to officially designate Pullman as a National Park is generating passion in the historic district once again -- but this time, advocates hope, with a more positive outcome. While a bill has been introduced in Congress to officially make the site part of the National Park system, many Chicagoans hope that President Obama can use the authority granted to him through the Antiquities Act to make the designation happen more quickly.

Brick row houses originally housed factory workers in Pullman. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Brick row houses originally housed factory workers in Pullman.

On August 21, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, together with the National Park Service, held a public meeting to rally support for Pullman’s designation as the nation’s 402nd National Park. Over 350 people filled a room in the site’s factory complex, chanting “402! 402!” and carrying buttons and homemade signs showing their enthusiasm. Speakers included U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, Illinois Historic Preservation Director Amy Martin, and Chicago Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Andrew Mooney.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who paid a surprise visit to the gathering, told the crowd that National Park status would be the ribbon around the package of a Pullman neighborhood that is on the rise, and expressed his full support for the project.

“I think the meeting exceeded our expectations,” said Catherine Shannon, deputy director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. While efforts to preserve and promote Pullman have been ongoing for decades with strong community leadership, Shannon and others at the IHPA have been working for Pullman’s recognition as part of the National Park system for about two years.

Advocates hope that the Pullman Historic Site will be granted National Park status in the near future. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Advocates hope that the Pullman Historic Site will be granted National Park status in the near future.

“The overwhelming show of community support for a National Park at the public meeting was inspiring,” says Jennifer Sandy, a senior officer in the National Trust’s Chicago field office. “People brought homemade signs, chanted and clapped, and even gave a few standing ovations.”

National Park designation would have countless benefits for the historic district and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of Pullman’s original structures are still standing, including the Queen Anne-style red brick factory and administration buildings, the picturesque Hotel Florence, and some of the worker housing. A study commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association estimated that Pullman, as a National Park, could attract 300,000 visitors each year and create 365 new jobs, providing $40 million annually to the community.

Shannon stresses that so many unique facets of America’s story can be told through Pullman, including African-American history (connected to Pullman’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American-led labor union,) labor history, and industrial railroad history.

“There are so many themes, and some things that aren’t told anywhere else,” she says. “We get tens of thousands of visitors [to Pullman,] but we could get hundreds of thousands. We can all put our resources and staff together and make it the dynamic site that it should be.”

Want to show your support for Pullman? Sign our petition!

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Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.

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3 Responses

  1. Joshua Castano

    September 1, 2014

    The title and lead in to this article are misleading in terms of historical facts — suggesting, rather erroneously, that we owe Labor Day to the Pullman Strike. Labor Day began as a movement over a decade before the strike and the legislation for a national holiday was the result of a national movement that began in New York. I am disappointed by the way these facts are framed in this article and the Trust should issue a correction.

  2. Katherine Flynn
    Katherine Flynn

    September 2, 2014

    Hi, Joshua. Thanks for your input. While the wider pro-labor movement at the time definitely did have a role in the designation of a Labor Day holiday and we’ve amended the text of this story to reflect that, we have many reasons to believe that the Pullman Strike was the impetus for the legislation. Here are a few links to other news articles that reflect that connection. Thanks! /

  3. Katie Durcan

    September 3, 2014

    This is an interesting article. It was good to learn about the Pullman connection. I wanted to share more about the roots of Labor Day from the Department of Labor:

    The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in NY City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883. The Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of NY and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.

    The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon 2/21/1887. During 1887 four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created a Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers. In response to a groundswell of support for a national holiday celebrating the nation’s workers, Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced S. 730 to the 53rd Congress to make Labor Day a legal holiday on the first Monday of September each year. It was approved on June 28, 1894. (During the strike.)