Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer and a lazy afternoon devoted to the three B’s: barbecue, beer and beanbag toss. It’s also a holiday that grew directly out of events in Chicago.
The year was 1894, and a nationwide railroad strike shut down most of the rail traffic west of Detroit. The origin of the strike was Chicago, where on May 11, 4,000 Pullman employees staged a wildcat strike. Things got ugly, military troops were brought in, and several workers died.
Bad blood between labor and management was still evident after the strike, so the U.S. Congress rushed legislation through to make Labor Day a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed the holiday into law less than a week after the strike ended on July 20.
George Pullman was not a particularly popular boss, as the strike might suggest. But, he was an innovative guy. He was intent on efficiency and cutting costs. That’s how the Pullman District came into being. Ironically, Pullman also believed a planned community for employees would minimize the likelihood of a strike.
The town itself was completed in 1884 and had nearly 1,000 homes and public buildings. Remarkably, about 90% of them are still intact. And, 3,000 people currently live in the historic district bordered by East 103rd Street, South Cottage Grove Avenue, and East 115th Street.
Now, 130 years later, the Pullman District is being considered to become the newest National Park. Just last week, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis joined Illinois officials to discuss the possibility. At an event hosted by the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, staff members of the National Parks Conservation Association offered more background.
The A.I.A. program began with a bit of history from Lynn McClure, senior regional director of the advocacy group.
“In order to become a national park, a site has to be the most significant, the biggest, the best,” McClure said. “There are 401 sites in the National Park system now. Two-thirds are historic sites, like the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, Gettysburg and the Gateway Arch.”
If approved, the Pullman District would join that group of historic sites. So, what makes the site so important? The architecture of the buildings in the district is certainly a factor. Beyond that, the Pullman’s hiring was noteworthy, said Alan Spears, historian and director of cultural resources for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“George Pullman thought that one of the best groups to cater to the needs of whites on sleeping cars was former slaves,” Spears said. “In fact, he was the largest employer of African Americans in the country. They worked long hours for good pay, but it’s not an easy job. They didn’t get paid training. And, the porters were not allowed to take off their uniforms or shoes while on the train, even when they were off duty.”
If the Pullman District becomes a national park, it would be the second one in Illinois, joining Abraham Lincoln’s home. (An interesting side note: after Lincoln’s assassination, his body was brought back to his final resting place in Springfield on a Pullman car.)
Why make the Pullman District a national park? There would be a significant economic benefit to the region, according to estimates. By its 10th year of full operation, the Pullman National Historical Park could generate $15 million in wages, and the potential for more than 356 new jobs. Tourism would also get a boost, with nearly 300,000 visitors per year.
All signs point to Pullman having a decent shot at becoming the 402nd national park. Lynn McClure said the district has several important factors going for it.
“It was the first model industrial community,” she said. “The National Park Service says to become a national park, a site has to be a historic district that is conclusively nationally significant. The Pullman District also has a strategic location—which the National Park Service likes—in the Calumet Region.”
In January, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly introduced a bill to make the Pullman District a national park. Supporters believe its unlikely Congress will act on the bills. That leaves one other option—the president can act independently, without Congressional action, under the Antiquities Act. Earlier this month Senator Durbin sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting he do just that.