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Pullman deserves to be national park



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Updated: December 6, 2013 6:20AM

When George Pullman slashed wages but refused to lower rents, blood ran in the streets.

By the time the Pullman strike of 1894 was over, having spread across the nation from Chicago’s South Side, 30 men were dead and Mr. Pullman’s utopian dream — a tightly controlled company town of happy, appreciative factory workers — was exposed for the fraud it was.

Pullman, now a 300-acre Chicago neighborhood, is central to the histories of both organized labor in the United States and utopian social experiments everywhere. As such — and because fully 90 percent of the community and factory works remain standing to this day — Pullman is as important a national heritage site as Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, Appomatox Court House in Virginia and Thomas Edison’s laboratory and home in New Jersey.

Our nation has declared these three historic sites and 43 others national parks, and Congress and President Obama would be wise to designate Pullman the 47th. As a matter of preserving our nation’s cultural heritage for generations to come, making Pullman a national park is an easy call, and the likely economic benefits are substantial.

Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, the Democratic and Republican senators from Illinois, and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) are on board with efforts to make Pullman a national historical park, though no legislation has been drafted. The idea has been endorsed by Gov. Pat Quinn, the state Legislature, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council.

Durbin warns, though, that any such bill would face an uphill battle, given the polarized politics of Washington and a reluctance by many in Congress to authorize spending for a new national park at a time when budgets are being cut.

Working in the bill’s favor is perhaps the best argument of all: Pullman could make money.

The necessary funding for the first few years would be minimal — perhaps $350,000 annually for two or three full-time employees — according a study released Tuesday by the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association. Within 10 years, that operating cost could grow to a still modest $3.5 million, for 25 to 35 employees. But the economic benefits, the study concludes, clearly could be much greater, quickly running to tens of millions of dollars.

The study estimates that the number of visitors could increase from the current 50,000 a year, who spend $5.3 million, to 300,000 in five to 10 years, who would spend $32 million.

The National Park Service logo — an arrowhead — is an internationally recognized symbol “with huge drawing power for tourists,” the report states. Development of the Pullman factory complex and other historic buildings would create a better tourist attraction. And Pullman would be able to collaborate on marketing with another nearby national park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

By the 10th year of operation, the report projects, a Pullman national historical park could support more than 300 new jobs, generating $15 million in wages and $40 million in economic output for the community. In addition, more than 150 construction jobs — to build, for example, a visitor center and other public spaces — would generate $17 million in wages and $43 million in economic output.

As a high-profile national park, the report states, Pullman also would have far better luck attracting additional funds from nonprofit, corporate and federal sources, including perhaps the Department of Transportation for Metra station improvements. And it likely would lead to an increased use of historic tax credits, generation funding to renovate the Pullman Firehouse, Market Hall and other buildings.

As a national park, Pullman would have the prestige necessary to partner up with large organizations, such as the Chicago Architecture Foundation, that have established track records and built-in customer bases.

George Pullman, king of the luxury railroad sleeping car business, meant well enough when he established his model company town in 1879. He sought nothing more than the moral uplift of ordinary workingman, a happy and efficient work force, and a 6 percent return on his investment. But Mr. Pullman did not understand human nature. He learned the hard and bitter way that most folks prize personal freedom — to run for political office, join a union, buy a newspaper of their choosing, drink a beer in a bar, or paint a kitchen wall whatever color they like — over the conformist comforts of a rich man’s paternalism.

As a model town, Pullman was a total failure. As a national park, it could be real winner.

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