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Make Pullman a National Park

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There’s an effort to turn the site of the 1894 Pullman Strike into a national park site. You should support this.

I have not yet discussed the Pullman Strike in a This Day in Labor History post, but in short, the Panic of 1893 cut into profits of the Pullman company, with its headquarters and model town on the far south side of Chicago. The response of George Pullman was to slash wages while not cutting rents on company housing. Workers walked out under the leadership of Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union. This strike quickly spread across the country, as 19th century railroad strikes were wont to do. Grover Cleveland then sent in the military to crush the strike. This event turned Debs into a socialist and one of America’s leading voices for social and economic justice in the early 20th century.

Pullman should clearly be a national park. For one thing, we do not have a national park marking any of the United States’ titanic labor struggles. Second, the Pullman site is unique but crumbling. I went out there about a year ago. While most of the Pullman buildings are gone, a couple of the most important remain standing, including the front building to the plant. They do need some significant work. There is a wire fence around it all and a few signs tacked onto the fence to provide some rudimentary interpretation.

The housing around the plant mostly still stands as well and is occupied by tenants. The old housing also makes for a pretty cool neighborhood worth visiting in its own right. There is a small museum, but it was closed when I was there on a Friday afternoon and I don’t think is open very often. While I imagine there would be some trickiness between managing the existing company housing and the residents of it, this would not be the only park to have that problem. For example, the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta manages this issue with deftness in my experience, charging pretty low rents for decent quality housing as it manages the neighborhood around King’s home.

The park would also provide significant economic benefits for the local community, which would be a real positive in South Side Chicago.

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  • UserGoogol

    Lowell has a national park dedicated to its industrial history, and labor takes up a decent chunk of it I think. (It’s not necessarily a “titanic” struggle but still.) I only went there in elementary school, though, so I don’t really remember it that well, and presumably some things have been updated. There’s a guy on this site from Lowell, though.

    • Yeah, Lowell is as close as the NPS gets to being able to interpret a major labor struggle. It does a great job interpreting labor there for sure, but it isn’t really one of the legendary labor struggles.

  • South Sider

    There are rumors that the Pullman HQ building is being considered for the Obama presidential library. Yhat and the Rosenwald apartments. I think Pullman would be the better location.

    • Wow.

      That would certainly be interesting.

  • South Sider

    There are rumors that the Pullman HQ building is being considered for the Obama presidential library. That and the Rosenwald apartments. I think Pullman would be the better location.

    Here’s Lee Bey’s take on it. He is the former Sun-Times architecture critic (he left to serve on the the City architectural board)

    http://www.wbez.org/blog/lee-bey/location-obama-presidential-library-why-not-pullman

    Click on the links in the article to get a Google street view of the area.

  • TheMontgomery

    Given the GOP’s recent propensity for trashing long-cherished government institutions to make glibertarian hay, I can’t help but wonder whether national news coverage of this proposition would prompt the rest of the GOP to adopt the position of Paulbots and their ilk of disbanding or privatizing the National Park Service.

    That said, though, it’d be a great site to have. Too few people are made aware of the grim reality that people literally died for developments like the 40-hour workweek.

  • Bruce V.

    A National Park at Pullman is a superb idea.

    The site you link to is short of good photos of what the site looks like now.

  • Steve S.

    When I read this post title I thought you were talking about the lentil capitol of America. What a disappointment. Allow me to advocate for the home of the Crimson and Gray being turned into a national park. Lots to do and see there. Wheat fields. Beer bongs. Did I mention beer bongs?

  • Bruce V.

    Another site of an existing national park presents a fantastic opportunity to create a monument to labor, or at least to fully integrate the story of labor into a national park in interesting ways.

    The New Bedford Whaling Historical Park is relatively new – http://www.nps.gov/nebe/index.htm — and still being developed. But it already shows a willingness to speak frankly to the labor issues of the whaling industry.

    During my brief visit there I was also struck to learn that the whaling magnates of the “golden age” of industry poured their substantial profits into newer, high-tech, (and more profitable) enterprises like the development of early textile mills!

    • Yeah, I was really impressed with the New Bedford Whaling park when I visited last summer. I thought it was great.

      • Bruce V.

        I liked that they explored the oddity that whaling was one of the few industrial enterprises in America where free black men and Native Americans were welcomed as workers on a level (more or less) equal to white men.

        Indeed, there was a free black community there in the early 1860s that was heavily recruited for for the black regiment that we all saw in the movie “Glory” There is a small monument to that regiment on the grounds of the New Bedford Historical Park.

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