Pullman National Monument celebrates worker history at Labor Day weekend grand opening

The story of the Pullman railcar factory is one of workers, and that was on full display at Saturday’s Labor Day weekend grand opening of the Pullman National Monument’s visitor center.

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Assistant Superintendent at the Pullman National Monument Sue Bennett points to a replica of the Pullman Palace Car Company factory that is on display at the Pullman National Monument’s visitor’s center on its opening day in the Pullman neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2021.

Assistant Superintendent at the Pullman National Monument Sue Bennett points to a replica of the Pullman Palace Car Company factory that is on display at the Pullman National Monument’s visitor’s center on its opening day in the Pullman neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

George Pullman started the Pullman Palace Car Co. and founded the town later annexed by Chicago.

But the story of the Pullman railcar factory in the Far South Side neighborhood is one of workers, and that was on full display at Saturday’s Labor Day weekend grand opening of the Pullman National Monument’s visitor center.

Inside the former administration building of the sprawling Pullman company factory, which closed in 1982, the National Park Service’s visitor center features an exhibit with plenty of labor history, including stories about union movements at the factory, the Black Pullman sleeping car porters and a Black women’s council that helped organize workers.

A reconstructed workers’ gate on the park monument’s south end commemorates a historic 1894 American Railway Union strike at the Pullman site that led to a national labor protest. After National Guard members responded to the strike and 13 workers died, then-President Grover Cleveland turned Labor Day into a federal holiday.

James Kinney, having worked at the now-closed U.S. Steel South Works site years ago, was looking for those worker stories at the site — particularly on Labor Day weekend.

“It’s [important they] come through with the regular labor history and not gloss over it, make it all about Pullman,” said Kinney, a 69-year-old East Chicago resident. “You need that balance.”

Friends James Kinney, Tom Shepherd and Wayne Garritano pose for a picture outside the Pullman National Monument’s visitor’s center on its opening day in the Pullman neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2021.

Friends James Kinney, Tom Shepherd and Wayne Garritano pose for a picture outside the Pullman National Monument’s visitor’s center on its opening day in the Pullman neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Kinney ran into an old friend, Tom Shepherd, outside the visitor center. Shepherd recalled exploring the building as a teenager when he met the girl who would become his wife. She lived on the other side of the train tracks from the factory.

“Our senior year of high school, she introduced me to this neighborhood,” he said. “This was all vacant and abandoned. And it was a cheap date back then because we’d spend a whole day just going through like an archaeological thing.”

Shepherd, an ex-president of the Pullman Civic Organization, said he remembered organizing the first Labor Day event held at the site nearly three decades ago, which prompted efforts to start cleaning up and preserving the building.

After walking through the exhibit, Ramale Smith, 43, said he felt the authenticity of the site was maintained.

“It looked like the 1800s,” he said. “You could see how times have changed.”

About a dozen visitors at a time walked through the exhibit because of COVID-19 capacity limits. Across 111th Street, hundreds gathered for a performance by the Jesse White Tumblers, and enjoyed food trucks and live music. Some went on Pullman neighborhood walking tours and visits inside the old Hotel Florence, named after George Pullman’s oldest daughter, that was used by Pullman, his family and associates.

Up on the train tracks that run along Cottage Grove Avenue, visitors checked out a set of restored, fully operational Pullman railcars at the 111th Street Metra Electric Station.

Robert Bushwaller, a board member of the Historic Pullman Foundation, one of the non-profits that helped spearhead the attraction, said he was encouraged by the number of people who showed up the first day.

“The public support has been better than expected,” Bushwaller said. “The turnout is tremendous. They remember so much from how it used to be and want to see if it still tasted that way, and they’ve been satisfied.”

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