Labor Day’s Link to Chicago's First National Park
Pullman National Monument, located on the south side of Chicago, became the city’s first national park in 2015.
Now that it’s part of the National Park System, what was once one of Chicago’s hidden treasures is becoming a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The Pullman Historic District was formerly home to the headquarters of the Pullman Palace Car Company and although the company has long since closed its doors, the remnants of one of the country’s first “company towns” remain.
Visitors to the district can see the original Pullman factory – where workers assembled railroad cars – before taking a guided tour of the surrounding neighborhood. Just outside of the factory’s doors you’ll find some of the original structures of the neighborhood like Market Hall, the Pullman clock tower and administration building, a church, and the beautiful row houses where Pullman workers once lived. Other can’t-miss destinations include Hotel Florence, the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, and nearby Arcade and Pullman parks.
Your journey through the district will give you a glimpse of the daily life of the workers who took part in a pivotal effort for the American labor movement. Pullman workers led one of the country’s first walkouts and strikes while demanding better working conditions and wages. At a time when railroads were the main source of transportation in the country, the Strike of 1894 gained attention on a national scale and resulted in the establishment of Labor Day as a federal holiday, celebrated each year on the first Monday of September.
Years later, in 1925, a group of primarily African American porters who worked on traveling trains formed the first African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by the neighborhood museum’s namesake, A. Philip Randolph. The porters and A. Philip Randolph were huge contributors to the civil rights movement and by 1937, they were able to successfully negotiate with the Pullman Company for better wages, job security, and increased protection of workers’ rights.
Pullman’s clock tower and administration building is a soaring structure at the heart of the district. It was the headquarters of the Pullman factory complex and the site of most of the company’s manufacturing. With the help of National Park Foundation funding, the clock tower now serves as the site’s visitor center. Other grants from the National Park Foundation are supporting the planning, design, and renovation of the 10,000 square foot building and the surrounding 12-acre factory site.
National Park Foundation funding is also facilitate the installation of new exhibits at the new visitor center, as well as the development of educational programming for young visitors and their families. To this end, the National Park Service has enlisted the help of teachers from six nearby schools to ensure that this programming aligns with Illinois state curriculum. These teachers formed an advisory group and are providing their expertise and creativity to develop and test a specialized third-grade curriculum unit.
Even when much of the educational programming is still in development, the National Park Service engaged hundreds of students from five nearby schools in activities at the park. With the help of community outreach and partnerships, the National Park Service estimates that it will serve approximately 300,000 visitors per year.
The National Park Foundation is also proud to support Historic Pullman Foundation in its role as Pullman National Monument’s Friends Group. NPF’s support has enabled them to do strategic planning, expand their mission, attract new volunteers and supporters for Pullman National Monument, and develop a new website.
Investments such as these ensure that the story of Pullman and its workers will carry on for generations. It’s yet another example of the National Park Foundation’s commitment to safeguarding the historic sites and collections that hold our shared history, amplifying the full range of experiences and voices that are woven into the fabric of the United States. Explore Pullman National Monument and other national parks across the country to uncover the stories of changemakers that have shaped society and the country as we know it.