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A Company Town Faces Starvation during the Pullman Strike

George Pullman, owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, exemplified the paternalistic "welfare capitalist." Believing that labor unrest was caused by poor pay and living conditions, he initially paid his workers high wages and housed them in a company town (named Pullman) on the outskirts of Chicago, complete with company-owned houses, stores, free education and a library stocked with books from Pullman's personal collection. But the fortunes of both company and town began to go downhill during the economic depression in the early 1890s. When wage cuts prompted Pullman workers to strike in May 1894, out-of-work employees and their families faced starvation. This series of letters documents Pullman citizens' desperate appeals to the Governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld, and Altgeld's unheeded request that Pullman himself help to alleviate the situation.

Kensington, Ill.,

August 17, 1894.

To His Excellency, the Governor of the State of Illinois:

We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving. Our places have been filled with workmen from all over the United States, brought here by the Pullman Company, and the surplus were turned away to walk the streets and starve also. There are over 1600 families here in destitution and want, and their condition is pitiful. We have exhausted all the means at our command to feed them, and we now make this appeal to you as a last resource. Trusting that God will influence you in our behalf and that you will give this your prompt attention, we remain, Yours in distress,

THE STARVING CITIZENS OF PULLMAN

F. E. POLLANS, L. J. NEWELL, THEO. RODHE,

August 19, 1894.

To George M. Pullman, President Pullman Palace Car Co., Chicago:

Sir:—I have received numerous reports to the effect that there is great distress at Pullman. To-day I received a formal appeal as Governor from a committee of the Pullman people for aid. They state that sixteen hundred families including women and children, are starving; that they cannot get work and have not the means to go elsewhere; that your company has brought men from all over the United States to fill their places. Now these people live in your town and were your employees. Some of them worked for your company for many years. They must be people of industry and character or you would not have kept them. Many of them have practically given their lives to you. It is claimed they struck because after years of toil their loaves were so reduced that their children went hungry. Assuming that they were wrong and foolish, they had yet served you long and well and you must feel some interest in them. They do not stand on the same footing with you, so that much must be overlooked. The State of Illinois has not the least desire to meddle in the affairs of your company, but it cannot allow a whole community within its borders to perish of hunger. The local overseer of the poor has been appealed to, but there is a limit to what he can do. I cannot help them very much at present. So unless relief comes from some other source I shall either have to call an extra session of the Legislature to make special appropriations, or else issue an appeal to the humane people of the State to give bread to your recent employees. It seems to me that you would prefer to relieve the situation yourself, especially as it has just cost the State upwards of fifty thousand dollars to protect your property, and both the State and the public have suffered enormous loss and expense on account of disturbances that grew out of trouble between your company and its workmen. I am going to Chicago to-night to make a personal investigation before taking any official action. I will be at my office in the Unity block at 10 a.m. to-morrow, and shall be glad to hear from you if you care to make any reply.

JOHN P. ALTGELD, Governor.

August 21st 1894.

Mr. George M. Pullman, President Pullman Car Company, Chicago, Ill.:

Sir:—I have examined the conditions at Pullman yesterday, visited even the kitchens and bedrooms of many of the people. Two representatives of your company were with me and we found the distress as great as it was represented. The men are hungry and the women and children are actually suffering. They have been living on charity for a number of months and it is exhausted. Men who had worked for your company for more than ten years had to apply to the relief society in two weeks after the work stopped….

Something must be done at once. The case differs from instances of destitution found elsewhere, for generally there is somebody in the neighborhood able to give relief; this is not the case at Pullman. Even those who have gone to work are so exhausted that they cannot help their neighbors if they would. I repeat now that it seems to me your company cannot afford to have me appeal to the charity and humanity of the State to save the lives of your old employes. Four-fifths of those people are women and children. No matter what caused this distress, it must be met. Yours, respectfully,

JOHN P. ALTGELD.

Chicago, August 21st, 1894.

George M. Pullman, Esq., President Pullman Palace Car Company, City.

Sir:—I have your answer to my communication of this morning. I see by it that your company refuses to do anything toward relieving the situation at Pullman….I cannot enter into a discussion with you as to the merits of the controversy between you and your former workmen. It is not my business to fix the moral responsibility in this case. There are nearly six thousand people suffering for the want of food—they were your employees—four-fifths of them women and children—some of these people have worked for you for more than twelve years. I assumed that even if they were wrong and had been foolish, you would not be willing to see them perish. I also assumed that as the State had just been to a large expense to protect your property you would not want to have the public shoulder the burden of relieving distress in your town. As you refuse to do anything to relieve suffering in this case, I am compelled to appeal to the humanity of the people of Illinois to do so.

Respectfully yours,

JOHN P. ALTGELD

Source | John Altgeld, Live Questions (Chicago: George S. Bowen and Son, 1899); from American Social History Project and the Center for History and New Media, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5363/.
Creator | John Altgeld
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | John Altgeld, “A Company Town Faces Starvation during the Pullman Strike,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 20, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/687.

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