humanitarian or scoundrel – cycling history

We did a bit of urban cycling the other day, down the CALsag trail in it’s newly paved beauty along the canal, and then through Blue Isle ( not sure how a landlocked town gets that name ) and through Roseland to Pullman. Roseland is the hard hit neighborhood where many of the stores are boarded up or converted to Churches or Mosques or bars. When the jobs have left a place, then people look to find hope in one place or another. Just beyond is Pullman, a town of historical contradictions.

Of the Pullman factory – the engine of opportunity where luxury rail-road cars were made little remains.

Pullman cars became popular after one was used in the train that took the body of assassinated President Lincoln across the country

Pullman cars became popular after one was used in the train that took the body of assassinated President Lincoln across the country

Factories need people, and George W. Pullman envisioned a city for his workers, designed by architects with clean air, good schools manned by trained teachers, and indoor plumbing in every house. It was his idea of Utopia. In 1870, he was a visionary humanitarian – and his city was considered the finest in the world. Today, you can ride past the grand hotel, or magnificent church and the row houses and boarding houses in which his workers lived and worshiped.

Housing still used almost 200 years later

Housing still used almost 200 years later

The company maintained every building, and the workers paid rent. The workers shopped at the company store, banked at the company bank – and even the ministers rented the church for services provided their sermon’s aligned with the Pullman beliefs.

The "company" church

The “company” church

In 1874 there was a recession, and Pullman cut the worker’s wages by 30% but refused to reduce the rents. The factory workers struck, and Pullman crushed the strike. Then railroad workers across the country refused to work any passenger train that had a Pullman car on it. The Pullman name was reviled, and his utopia called un-American and despicable in every way. The Federal Government then broke the rail strike.

Pullman died shortly after the strike of a heart-attack. The scoundrel had tons of cement poured over his grave so that no-one could desecrate his body, and the humanitarian left a bequeath to fund a million dollar endowment to educate the children of the workers at his factory.

As we rode back to wrap up our 50 mile ride I pondered this complex man, and his vision while words of John Goodman’s ‘City of New Orleans’ played in my mind…

And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel

PS – if you ever played the video game Bioshock – with it’s visionary madman and failed utopia – it has to be modeled after this time and place

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24 Comments on “humanitarian or scoundrel – cycling history”

  1. […] Pullman, a city in Chicago became a failed utopia following a rail-road strike ( you can read about Pullman here or on wikipedia ). There’s a sort of purity to cycling and cycling leaves space for […]

  2. quiall says:

    Thank you so much for ‘following’ me!

  3. Very interesting piece. Thanks for writing it. Intriguing how a successful business man becomes a megalomaniac, extruding a utopian vision in which he controls everything, cuts wages but not rents, and goes from the top of the heap to the bottom, and yet and still leaves money supposedly for the deserving.

    PS City of New Orleans performed by Guthrie is one of my favorites – so you also sent me on an interesting voyage learning who Steve (not John) Goodman is/was. thanks, Randy

  4. Man, this was a throwback to my American history classes! I remember we had to perform a debate where one side was Pullman and his men, and the others were the workers.

    We had to think a lot from the perspectives of both sides. Anyhow, I enjoyed this, seeing the factory and the trip from your point of view. Hope you have a great day!

  5. reocochran says:

    I love historical facts and this Pullman post was like a step into one man’s dream of Utopis. As you described it, unfortunately became a nightmare. The world is “paved with good intentions.” Just did not wide yo go more negatively (I do know that quote really begins with. . . “The road to “H-E-double hockey sticks.”

    • reocochran says:

      I meant “Utopia” and did not want to go more negatively than that but do know the real quote includes a more negative twist. I should be more careful with tiny letters on my phone:)

  6. Resa says:

    What a great bit of American history!
    Thank you for the related mural, and it will be my next post!!

  7. Clanmother says:

    There are many narratives hidden in the folds of history. Excellent post!

  8. What an interesting history lesson Bill. As I was reading, I liked Pullman, then I didn’t like him and then liked him again. How many of us have a vision for our entire city? ❀
    Diana xo

    • billgncs says:

      Yes Diana – in fact there’s a little museum there and I asked someone if Pullman was humanitarian or Robber-baron – he thought for a moment and said… “He was a complicated man”

      After doing some reading afterwards, I almost felt that might have drifted into mental illness at the end, in a Howard Hughes kind of way. The press crucified him, and we are never so good as others think, and rarely so bad.

  9. cperrington says:

    Great insight. Very interesting read. Good way to start my day.


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