Pullman National Monument Upgraded to National Historical Park — and the Name Change Makes a Big Difference

What’s in a name?

Everything, when it comes to Pullman National Monument, which is now known as “Pullman National Historical Park.” More than just semantics, the shift to “park” grants the site increased protections.

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The monument was created in 2015 by then President Barack Obama, using powers given to the country’s chief executive by the Antiquities Act. It was an exciting moment for local leaders and residents who had long championed the significance of the former Pullman factory town as the birthplace of the American labor movement.

But while monuments can be created by the stroke of a president’s pen, the concern is that they can be undone by the same. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, also designated by Obama, was, in a rare instance, repealed by President Donald Trump.

With that precedent in mind, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (2nd District) and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth sponsored legislation — which is how national parks are created — to transform Pullman into a national historical park. The law passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Joe Biden in December.

“Anybody that wants to get their hands on Pullman has to come through Robin Kelly and Durbin and Duckworth and Congress,” Sen. Durbin said Thursday during a celebration of the new designation held at the park.

Pullman now joins President Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield as one of the two national historic parks in Illinois.

The collective effort it’s taken to get Pullman to this point demonstrates a level of collaboration by local, state and national entities — in both the public and private sectors — not often seen, said Rick Clark, deputy regional director of the National Park Service, who flew in from Omaha for the festivities.

“The trajectory of this park over the course of just a 7-year period ... that does not happen within the National Park Service very often,” Clark said. “That unity ... that does not happen. I envision the National Park Service potentially using this as a blueprint for how to do it right.”

Though Pullman’s rise to national historical park status may have seemed meteoric to Clark, it has been decades in the making, Kelly noted.

There was a time when the Pullman factory, its grounds and much of the surrounding company town were viewed as ripe for the bulldozer, and the area's history would have been lost in the rubble. 

“The ground we stand on ... holds so much of our national story,” said Kelly, from the rise of the railroad and with it the Pullman railcar, to the Pullman Strike and Boycott of 1894 that touched off the labor movement (and ultimately led to Labor Day), to the formation of the country’s first Black trade union in support of the famed Pullman porters.

Too often those stories went untold, she said, but in preserving Pullman, “this unique piece of American history” has been centered in the conversation.

Investment in the broader Pullman community has followed the attention drawn first by the national monument designation and now the national historical park.

The city of Chicago views the park as an anchor for development on the Far South Side, including housing and retail, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, and is pumping $29 million into streetscape improvements.

“We have to have skin in the game, too,” Lightfoot said.

The next step is for the National Park Service to develop a general management plan, which will guide stewards of the site in the decades to come, Clark said.

“The future for this park is now,” Clark said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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