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Newly unveiled Pullman National Monument hub of labor, industrial history
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Newly unveiled Pullman National Monument hub of labor, industrial history

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CHICAGO — A national monument honoring the Pullman company town, where workers built luxury train cars that crisscrossed the country, has been unveiled to the public.

The National Park Service invested more than $34 million in federal, state and private funding over the last few years into turning the former Pullman factory's historic Administration Clock Tower building at 111th and South Cottage Grove Avenue into the new Pullman National Monument visitors center and to renovate the factory grounds on Chicago's South Side.

The rehabilitated property features a railway garden, walkways, sculpture, a restored worker's gate and interpretative signs explaining the historical significance.

"This is not a culmination. This is the beginning," said Dr. Lyn Hughes, the founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, a longtime community institution that's now part of the national monument.

The National Park Service and Illinois Department of Natural Resources opened the Pullman National Monument and State Historic Site, which then-President Barack Obama established in 2015, over Labor Day weekend. It's Chicago's first national park site.

“Pullman played an important role in shaping American history, and its stories are as meaningful to Americans today as they were in the company’s heyday,” Pullman National Monument Superintendent Teri Gage said. “Today we celebrate this nationally significant cultural resource and the opportunities it creates to connect these stories with new audiences.”

It's where industrialist George Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Co. that built sleeper cars and troop transport cars for the railroads, then the main way people traveled long distances across the country. His company also once built train cars in Hammond on 165th Street and Michigan City, where the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets are now.

Pullman built the neighborhood around the factory so his workers could walk to their jobs in what has been described as "America's first planned model industrial community" and "the perfect town," despite leaving a much more complicated legacy.

"We've all heard the story: Company owner George Pullman cut wages while maintaining high rents in the company town, squeezing workers until they could take no more," said Robert Reiter, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Industrial Union Council, AFL-CIO.

"The workers went on strike in 1894, paralyzing the national railway system only to have the strike crushed by the federal government," he said. "In an effort at reconciliation, President Grover Cleveland pushed through a holiday to recognize workers: Labor Day. But it's important to recognize our campaign to have a Labor Day not only here in Chicago but across the world had been going on for 20 or 30 years."

The new national monument visitors center chronicles rail history, industrial innovation, labor rights, civil rights and urban planning.

Stories about Pullman will be explored in the much larger visitor center, which was previously in the Pullman Historic Foundation Museum at Cottage Grove and 112th Street, which will remain open independently after the National Park Service moved out.

The new visitor center in the iconic clock tower building opened to the general public on Tuesday, when timed tickets were no longer required to get in.

Visitors can learn from exhibits about the role Pullman play in American labor history, including the 1894 strike and the 1937 contract the African-American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union won with the company.

Exhibits also focus on rail manufacturing, the neighborhood's design and architecture and ongoing efforts to preserve the historic district on the far South Side, not far from the state line.

"We're here preserving, protecting and promoting our history," 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale said. "As a kid riding my bike through Pullman, born and raised here, when I rode through Pullman, it seemed like I was riding through another world. I didn't know the history when I was a kid. We're going to change that."

Park rangers recommend setting aside at least half a day for a visit to fully explore the national monument.

For more information, visit www.nps.gov/pull/ or call 773-468-9310.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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