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People & Events: George Pullman (1831-1897)

George Mortimer Pullman daguerrotype ca. 1857 George Pullman raised Chicago from the muck, literally.

In 1855, the city established a new sewer system, but in order for it to drain into the river, the new pipes and streets were raised as high as ten feet above ground. Consequently, buildings below street level required stairs to get up to the street. Other buildings -- as well as hydrants and lampposts and trees -- were raised up to the new level. This was a great opportunity for George Mortimer Pullman, a building mover from Albion, New York.

Pullman, just twenty-eight years old when he moved to Chicago in 1859, would systematically raise a building with perhaps 600 men each in charge of 10 jacks. On his signal, each man would turn his jacks a quarter turn. As the building slowly ascended, the foundations of the buildings would be shored up. In this way, he raised buildings so smoothly that businesses could continue to run while their structures were elevated. Pullman was hailed as a genius and a hero.

Portrait of Pullman sitting- older Pullman took the capital he earned from raising buildings and moved on to developing a new venture, luxury railroad cars. Rail travel had been a hard exercise in boredom and hunger before Pullman. He created train cars with elegant restaurants, accordioned connectors between cars to keep out wind and noise, and well appointed sleeper compartments with fine sheets and pillows. A master public relations man, Pullman made sure that when President Abraham Lincoln died, a Pullman car returned his body to Illinois.

The railroad car business made him a fortune. Pullman never sold his sleepers; instead, railways leased them from his company and also handed over the premium they charged passengers for the luxury ride. With over two thousand cars on the rails, his company was worth $62 million in 1893.

Bertha Pullman Not content as a mere businessman, Pullman created a utopian town for his workmen, with state-of-the-art houses, proper sewage lines, a church and even a library -- but no alcohol. It was a dry town. But the lovely village of Pullman, just south of Chicago (and now within city limits) operated like his rail car business, designed to make a profit for Pullman's investors. All houses were leased, never sold. Even the church was to be leased, but the rent was too high for any sect to occupy it. He also sold city water and gas to his employee-residents -- at a 10% premium.

In the winter of 1893-4, at the start of a depression, Pullman decided to cut wages by 30%. This was not unusual in the age of the robber barons, but he didn't reduce the rent in Pullman, because he had guaranteed his investors a 6% return on their investments in the town. A workman might make $9.07 in a fortnight, and the rent of $9 would be taken directly out of his paycheck, leaving him with just 7 cents to feed his family. One worker later testified: "I have seen men with families of eight or nine children crying because they got only three or four cents after paying their rent." Another described conditions as "slavery worse than that of Negroes of the South."

On May 12, 1894 the workers went on strike.

The American Railway Union was led by Eugene Victor Debs, a pacifist and socialist who later founded the Socialist Party of America and was its candidate for president in five elections. Under the leadership of Debs, sympathetic railroad workers across the nation tied up rail traffic to the Pacific. The so-called "Debs Rebellion" had begun.

Arcade Building with strikers and soldiers Debs gave Pullman five days to respond to the union demands but Pullman refused even to negotiate (leading another industrialist to yell, "The damned idiot ought to arbitrate, arbitrate and arbitrate! ...A man who won't meet his own men halfway is a God-damn fool!"). Instead, Pullman locked up his home and business and left town.

On June 26, all Pullman cars were cut from trains. When union members were fired, entire rail lines were shut down, and Chicago was besieged. One consequence was a blockade of the federal mail, and Debs agreed to let isolated mail cars into the city. Rail owners mixed mail cars into all their trains however, and then called in the federal government when the mail failed to get through.

Debs could not pacify the pent-up frustrations of the exploited workers, and violence broke out between rioters and the federal troops that were sent to protect the mail. On July 8, soldiers began shooting strikers. That was the beginning of the end of the strike. By the end of the month, 34 people had been killed, the strikers were dispersed, the troops were gone, the courts had sided with the railway owners, and Debs was in jail for contempt of court.

Pullman's reputation was soiled by the strike, and then officially tarnished by the presidential commission that investigated the incident. The report condemned Pullman for refusing to negotiate and for the economic hardships he created for workers in the town of Pullman. "The aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread." The State of Illinois filed suit against the Pullman Company's ownership of a town, and the neighborhood was reabsorbed into the fabric of the city.

Portrait of George M. Pullman, seated at the age of 61 in 1891. When Pullman died on October 19, 1897, his family was worried that his corpse would be desecrated by former employees. His tomb in Graceland cemetery was a pit eight feet deep, with floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete. The lead-lined casket was buried at night, and covered with asphalt, more concrete and steel rails. The grave was then sodded and fitted with a Corinthian column.

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