- Historic Sites
The Forgotten Four Hundred: Chicago’s First Millionaires
While New York families were spending fortunes inherited from fathers and grandfathers, the Chicago rich had to start from scratch, both making and lavishly spending money within one generation
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
By 1881 Pullman was a rich and famous man. Cars carrying his name rolled all over the country’s burgeoning rail network. He had factories, building them in several cities besides Chicago, but it was there that he summoned into existence a vision in which he took enormous pride: a model village for his workers—Pullman, Illinois.
The spirit of paternalism was not new, and earlier enlightened capitalists in Britain and America had experimented with industrial Utopias. But Pullman’s was a model of modern efficiency. His workers rented from him sturdy brick houses with modern conveniences like running water, gas, and electricity—purchased from him. Even sewage was thriftily piped as fertilizer to a Pullman-owned farm.
The town had a park, a theater, a school, a bank, and a hotel. Those who lived there were not only Pullman’s beneficiaries but his subjects. Pullman, the town, was outside Chicago city limits and was administered by Pullman, the owner. However benevolent the intention, it was a company town, and its resident American workers, never hospitable to feudalism, complained that they were baptized in a Pullman church and, when they died, went to a Pullman heaven or a Pullman hell.
Grumbling turned into revolt in May 1894. The depression of that year had curtailed orders for cars, and Pullman’s cost cutting included slashed wages in the shops. At the same time, rents in the village of Pullman were not reduced. It was operated by an ostensibly separate company that was expected to break even. Philanthropy could not violate economic “laws.” Forced to choose between starvation and eviction, the workers struck.
Stung by what he saw as ingratitude, Pullman refused all pleas of mediators—and many fellow businessmen—either to restore the wage cuts or to lower the rents. Then events ran out of control. Some of the workers belonged to Eugene V. Debs’s American Railway Union, embracing all kinds of operating personnel. It called a sympathy strike against all trains that included Pullman cars. This turned the Pullman strike into a crippling, nationwide rail tie-up. Savage feelings were unloosed on both sides. Before it was all over, federal troops had been sent to Chicago to protect strikebreakers, rioters in the city had put the torch to railroad property worth millions of dollars, and Debs had gone to jail.
And George Pullman the model capitalist had become George Pullman the synonym for autocracy and reaction. To add to his sense of being ill used, the courts denied his right to govern his town, which was eventually incorporated into Chicago proper.
Pullman died in 1897, morose and unhinged. He ordered his grave to be lined in concrete to foil grave robbers. He left to his twin sons only an annual income of three thousand dollars each, noting in his will that neither had the talents “requisite for the wise use of large properties.” He likewise bequeathed to his wife only the income of his fortune, which had been reduced to seven and a half million dollars. But she chose to exercise her dower right to claim the principal and, in a posthumous rebuke to her husband’s judgment, ran it up to eighteen million dollars before she died.
Pullman tried to build a workers’ paradise near the city and met the classic fate of those who compete with the gods.
Of all products manufactured in Chicago in the 1890s, Pullman cars may have been most widely known among the general public. But to the millions of America’s farmers and those who depended on them, the name McCormick, stamped on agricultural machinery, was even more familiar.
Cyrus Hall McCormick was no beginner when he arrived in Chicago on the trail to fortune in 1847. Thirteen years earlier he was refining his already renowned reaping machine on his father’s substantial Virginia farm. Looking for a central location to build reapers in quantity, he judged rightly that the national wheat belt was moving westward and that it would make good sense to locate his plant within a short delivery range. He considered and discarded St. Louis and Milwaukee, then chose Chicago. Seldom has a bet on a city’s future been better rewarded. Within a dozen years the jerry-built little lake port had become the spigot through which Western grain gushed out to the world. It shipped 16,000,000 bushels of wheat in 1859; only three years later the total had swollen to 65,400,000 bushels.
McCormick’s reapers, binders, cultivators, and other harvesting machines were making it all possible, even when hundreds of thousands of farm hands were away at Civil War battlefronts. McCormick was the point man in a technological revolution still in progress that keeps producing greater crops with less labor, and in his time he made Chicago its headquarters.
What was more, he was helping change the outcome of history. Partly because Great Britain needed Northern wheat more than Southern cotton, Britain did not, as expected, intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf. So McCormick, as well as his fellow Illinoisans Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, helped win the Civil War.