National Monument & State Historic Site
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From the prairie south of Chicago, a perfect town began to rise in 1880. Through "scientific planning," it integrated offices and industrial shops with housing, all in a parklike setting.

Both town and company bore the surname of the owner, George Pullman (1831-97). He built luxury sleeping rail cars and leased them to railroads, along with staff who provided on-board services. Pullman's business model gave the company a nationally competitive edge.

A worker's status and class influenced which Pullman home he could rent. High earners lived closest to their workplace. The company hoped the hygienic homes and elegant landscape would lead employees to strive toward a higher social class and behavior. Some praised Pullman's genius; others called his experiment un-American. By the 1890s, the company and its workers began to clash. Events at Pullman and rulings in the state and federal courts set precedents that echoed throughout the nation.

Pullman Strike and Boycott

A depression in 1893 caused a nationwide decline in orders for rail cars. The Pullman company cut workers' wages by 25 percent but did not lower rents. George Pullman refused to negotiate with employees over either issue. Workers walked off the job in May 1894, and across the country, American Railway Union (ARU) workers responded in solidarity. They boycotted any train that pulled a Pullman car, halting commerce.

By July the strike and boycott led to occupation by US Army troops of rail centers across the nation. When the Pullman shops reopened, the workers had gained little of substance. But they discovered that labor, when organized, had power. They also learned a harsh truth—that the government would side with industry and even use force to restore order.

Jane Addams (1860-1915) A social reformer, Addams saw the strike as a class conflict and tried to mediate it. She brought the workers to the bargaining table, but George Pullman refused to meet with her.

Eugene Debs (1855-1956) The founder of the American Railway Union, Debs tried to build labor's power by reaching out to railroad workers across the skill lines that separated them. The federal government prosecuted and jailed him.

Federal and State Laws Change

After the strike ended, the tide began to turn in favor of labor. The US Congress passed the Erdman Act in 1898. It required railroad companies and unions to arbitrate labor disputes.

Also in 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the original charter was for manufacturing only, and Pullman began to sell its non-industrial holdings. The ruling paved the way to home ownership for Pullman residents.

The Great Migration

A Pullman porter job was a way into the middle class for African Americans—despite continuing racial discrimination. Based near major train hubs, porters earned a good income and had opportunities to travel. They absorbed news and information from across the country and carried it home. Their eyewitness reports helped fuel the Great Migration of African Americans to northern and midwestern industrial cities. Pullman porters helped inspire others to seek change in order to support their families and build new lives. Hundreds of thousands of people made the transition.

Black Workers Unite and Win

The American Railway Union opened its membership to Chicago railroad workers in 1893 but barred African Americans. In 1915 an all-African American railroad brotherhood, the international Railway Mens Benevolent Industrial Association, organized Pullman porters under federal World War I railroad labor regulations. The loss of wartime emergency protections doomed the association's survival but convinced African American railroaders that federal recognition was crucial. In 1925 Pullman porters organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Gar Porters (BSCP), aided by labor and civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) and former Pullman porter Milton P. Webster.

In 1937 the porters won their first Pullman company contract after suing in federal court They achieved a 240-hour work month, 4 to 6 hours off duty each night, and wages rather than tips. Their success inspired African Americans in other trades to demand equality and recognition in the workplace.

Women's Economic Council Auxiliary Porters' wives, and the maids who worked alongside porters, organized to support the BSCP. In 1938 the women's auxiliary held a national convention in Chicago.

An End to the Monopolies

In 1943, a federal district court dealt a sharp blow to the Pullman Company's business plan, ruling that it could not insist on an "exclusive right" clause when leasing cars or service staff to railroads. The court directed Pullman to choose between operating or manufacturing train cars. The company chose the latter.

The ruling ended the monopolies that created great wealth for the company and its shareholders but also resulted in the loss of all service jobs. In the 1950s, as people began to drive long distances, the company pivoted to manufacturing freight and passenger cars for short-distance travel.

"Let it once be proved that enterprises of this kind are sage and profitable and we shall see great manufacturing corporations developing similar enterprises, and thus a new era will be introduced in the history of labor."

—George Pullman, 1867

Strictly Business

George Pullman built his company and town according to the principle of "scientific planning" in a rational, orderly manner. The same tools and machines used in the first industrial shops to manufacture rail cars were used to build workers' houses. The use of capital to build houses was a "strict investment" on which shareholders received a 6 percent profit. The beauty and amenities of the town would result in "elevated and refined" employees. As a result, residents would refrain from consuming alcohol, swearing, or striking.

A writer for Harpers Weekly appreciated the cohesive town plan, but criticized its overly restrictive management and the lack of residents' participation in town affairs: "The idea of Pullman is un-American... It is benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as shall please the authorities."

George Pullman excelled at moving and raising buildings along the Chicago lakeshore in the 1850s. He saw opportunity in the rapidly growing city.

Order, Precision, and Power

In the Administration Clock Tower Building, natural light from tall windows filled the central area where designers, engineers, and administrative staff worked. In two flanking wings, skilled artisans finished train cars.

The layout was intended to save time and unnecessary movement. A visiting economist enthused, "the planning of these workshops is remarkable... Tiny little locomotives are running along the lines which are built in the spaces between the various workshops ... Everything is done in order and with precision; one feels that each effort is calculated to yield its maximum effect, that no blow of a hammer, or turn of a wheel, is made without cause."

The Corliss Engine, which powered the car shops' machinery, could be seen by people traveling on the Illinois Central Railroad as it passed Pullman. It was displayed in a building with plateglass windows. The exhaust water discharged to an artificial lake in front of the shops, where it cooled. Lake Vista also functioned as a landscaping feature.

"While the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that. These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had."

—President Barack Obama, 2015

The Pullman Neighborhood

The company's dual role as employer and landlord changed after George Pullman's death in 1897. By 1909 most houses in Pullman were privately owned, and buyers were not required to work at Pullman. Some purchased homes from former employees who lost their jobs when the company switched from wood to steel car construction. The city of Chicago absorbed the town. Through the 1940s, as car and air travel increased, the Pullman workforce grew smaller. The company built its last rail car in 1981, for Amtrak.

Today, people of different ages, races, and occupations live in the historic Pullman neighborhood, which public and private organizations help preserve and interpret.

Promoting Pullman

Idealizing illustrations about Pullman appeared in ads and national and international newspapers and magazines. Reports from the 1890s often mentioned the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. George Pullman donated funds and served as a board member. The exposition celebrated all that was modern, new, and innovative—like Pullman.

A Railroad Nation

Pullman staff who provided on-board service lived around the country. African Americans made up nearly 40 percent of the Pullman workforce in the early 1900s. All followed detailed car-service rules published by the company.

Visiting Pullman Today

Pullman National Monument is a historic district with many destinations within its boundary. Explore the monument on your own or through programs, tours, exhibits, and media offered by the National Park Service and its partners.

Thank you for respecting the many private homes and buildings in the historic Pullman neighborhood.

Source: NPS Brochure (2021)


Pullman National Monument — February 19, 2015

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Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section


Archaeological Overview & Assessment: Pullman National Historical Monument, Town of Pullman, Chicago, Illinois Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report No. 142 (Timothy J. Scarlett and Steven A. Walton, December 17, 2017)

Foundation Document, Pullman National Monument, Illinois (June 2017)

Foundation Document Overview, Pullman National Monument, Illinois (January 2017)

Historic Resource Study: Pullman National Historical Monument, Town of Pullman, Chicago, Illinois (Laura Walikainen Rouleau, Sarah Fayen Scarlett, Steven A. Walton and Timothy J. Scarlett, December 31, 2019)

Junior Ranger Activity Book, Pullman National Monument (2018)

Newsletters (Pullman Updates): June 2016Fall 2016January 2017

Proclamation 9233 — Establishment of the Pullman National Monument (Barack Obama, February 19, 2015)

Pullman Historic District Reconnaissance Survey, Chicago, Illinois (July 2013)

Pullman Transportation Plan (September 2017)

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Last Updated: 29-Oct-2021