In 1894, Chicago was the Midwest’s gateway to the rest of the United States. Twenty-four different railroad lines centered or terminated in Chicago, covering the nation in over forty thousand miles of rail. Farmers, merchants, craftsmen and factories hoping to bring their goods to the rest of the nation — and potentially, to the rest of the world — had to first bring those goods to Chicago to begin their journey down one of the city’s many rail lines. Without Chicago’s railroads, much of the country lost its access to the nation’s commerce and was essentially plunged back into a pre-industrial economy.
On May 11, 1894, a strike began just outside of Chicago in a company town run by one of the wealthiest Americans who has ever lived. By the strike’s bloody end, up to a quarter of a million workers joined together in solidarity with the strikers. Two federal judges, working in close collusion with federal officials who were themselves very much in league with Chicago’s railroad executives, would place the full power of the federal judiciary on the side of union-busters. President Grover Cleveland, acting on the advice of the railroad attorney he placed at the head of the Justice Department, would eventually send federal troops to Chicago. At the height of the conflict, Harper’s Magazine claimed that the nation was “fighting for its own existence just as truly as in suppressing the great rebellion” of the Confederacy.
And all of this happened because of two decisions made by just one man, George Mortimer Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company. The first was the decision of Pullman and his company to cut its payrolls by nearly 40 percent, even as he increased the stock dividends his company paid to himself and its other shareholders. The second was Pullman’s utter refusal to deal with the union that represented his workers. In an America with no modern labor laws requiring management to come to the bargaining table with their workers, Pullman’s workers had no option other than a strike. And that strike would eventually escalate into a conflict that brought Chicago — and the nation’s entire economy — to its knees.