Illinois During the Gilded Age

Populism, Pullman and Chicago's Columbian Exposition: 1892-1895

by Drew E. VandeCreek

John Peter Altgeld became Illinois' first foreign-born governor after his election in 1892. Born in Germany but raised in Ohio, Altgeld found his way to Chicago after stops in Missouri. In Chicago he invested in real estate and became rich. He turned his legal practice to the lucrative field of corporation law, then became a judge. In his 1892 campaign as the Democratic candidate for governor, Altgeld supported labor, but remained quiet about the Haymarket affair. After his election Altgeld read the trial materials and pardoned the three remaining prisoners in a strongly worded statement that attacked the police and prosecutors, however. Altgeld's pardon inspired a frenzy of reproach among Republicans, whose newspapers called him a socialist and an anarchist.

Altgeld's administration enforced labor legislation more thoroughly than his Republican predecessor's, and hired the reformer Florence Kelley as Chief Factory Inspector for the State of Illinois. Her close attention to working conditions outraged many industrialists, but it also brought issues of worker safety before the public as never before.

Altgeld's urban reform efforts took place as the rural uprising against the nation's emerging economic arrangements reached its high water mark. In the 1870s farmers, including many in Illinois, had formed Granges devoted to self-help and political lobbying. In the 1880s many agriculturalists formed Farmer's Alliances, which established cooperative grain elevators and other ventures to free themselves from the power of highly organized businesses. Alliance meetings brought isolated farm families together to commiserate, listen to speakers, and enjoy amusements. By 1890 many state Alliances ran their own slates of political candidates, which won nine seats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate.

By 1892 the Alliance had formed a new national political organization, the People’s Party. Its platform endorsed a national system of government crop warehouses, or subtreasuries, which would allow farmers to store their harvests until they found favorable prices. The party also advocated an expansion of the American money supply through the free coinage of silver. In the preceding decades the federal government's retirement of Civil War "greenbacks" and insistence upon the gold standard had effectively deflated the American dollar, placing an enormous strain upon debtors like farmers. The People’s Party polled over one million votes and carried three states in an election that returned the Democrat Grover Cleveland to office after Benjamin Harrison's four-year interlude.

Altgeld took office in 1893, just as workers were completing work on the structures and grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition. The exposition celebrated Christopher Columbus' landing in America four hundred years earlier, and celebrated American society, business and culture. Over twenty-seven million visitors streamed into Chicago to take it all in. 3

The fairgrounds themselves covered 633 acres, and featured fourteen major buildings. Together these buildings, all designed in the neo-classical style and constructed of similar materials, comprised a striking collection that many visitors came to call the White City. The White City represented a considerable defeat for the innovative designs of Louis Sullivan, who complained that the buildings would set architecture back by fifty years.

At the fair's center visitors found a large reflecting pool, a fountain, and a classical statue. Major halls featured exhibits praising machinery, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, electricity, and the liberal arts. A separate Woman's Building exhibited women's work and accomplishments. Another building, the Palace of Fine Arts, contained over 8000 works of art. Smaller buildings contained materials from American states and territories and over twenty foreign countries.

World's Columbian Exposition - at the South Entrance of the Manufacturers Building

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his influential paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the American Historical Association's annual meeting, held in conjunction with the exposition. Turner remarked that the 1890 census had shown that Americans faced a new dilemma: they had run out of available land on the frontier. He argued that the frontier had served as a catalyst for American democracy and character, and wondered what would happen in a future bereft of this important part of the American experience. Turner's important and controversial "frontier thesis" captured many Americans' gnawing unease about the very emergence of modern society celebrated so thoroughly in the exposition. 5

In addition to educational exhibits, the fair also provided an opportunity for entertainment. The world's first Ferris Wheel appeared on the fair's Midway, as did a zoo, a swimming pool, and a fun house. Not only did foreign countries send official exhibitions, entrepreneurs also assembled displays ostensibly portraying life in the villages of less prosperous nations. Many fair goers took side trips to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which had set up just outside the fair grounds.

The fair made Chicago the nation's unofficial capital in the summer of 1893, but by the spring of 1894 the city was again principally known for its ongoing struggle between employers and workers. Laborers and tradesmen had poured into the city to help build the fair grounds, but the fair took place as the American economy entered another of its periodic depressions. The recent influx of workers made times especially hard in Chicago. A disappointed job seeker's assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison in October of 1893 again set Chicagoans on edge. Many feared that additional violence could not be far off.

The industrialist George Pullman ignited the new round of labor disputes in May of 1894. He had built a model community devoted to constructing his luxurious passenger rail cars south of the city. Pullman provided his workers with churches and cultural facilities, but denied them the opportunity to own their own homes or govern themselves. Pullman also made his town run at a distinct profit. All Pullman workers were obliged to live in the town and pay rents some 25% higher than those in Chicago.

When the depression of 1893 undermined Pullman's business, he cut workers' pay by up to 25%, but did not reduce their rents. Despite other businessmen's advice, he refused to negotiate with his hard-pressed workers. The Pullman employees went out on strike.

The American Railway Union represented many railroad workers, and had just won an important victory by forcing the Great Northern Railroad to rescind most of its wage cuts. Although the vast majority of Pullman workers did not belong to the Union, its leader Eugene Debs decided to take up their cause. ARU members refused to handle Pullman cars on any trains until the strike was resolved.

The Union's actions spread to twenty-seven states and paralyzed much of the American railroad system. Pullman cars were popular features on passenger trains, and their boycott by railroad switchmen effectively prevented these trains from moving. Railroad managers, desperate to move traffic, took advantage of a federal law prohibiting strikers from interfering with the mails by adding mail cars to all trains including Pullman sleepers.

President Grover Cleveland

Governor Altgeld refused to mobilize the Illinois militia against the Pullman strikers, but President Grover Cleveland (at right), a fellow Democrat, came down decisively on the side of the railroads. His administration received a judge's injunction against the Union's actions, and called in the United States Army to enforce it. Crowds again gathered on the streets of Chicago to support strikers, and rioting broke out. When Altgeld protested the presence of federal troops he had not requested, five other governors supported his position. But Cleveland would not yield. On July 10, 1894 Eugene Debs surrendered to law enforcement officials. He faced charges of conspiring to violate the court injunction prohibiting his Union's activities, and served six months in prison. There he became a socialist who would revitalize that movement in the Progressive Era.

In 1895 the African-American political activist Ida B. Wells removed to Chicago. Born a child of slaves in Mississippi in 1862, Wells found education and began teaching school as a teenager. Working as an educator in Memphis, the young Wells challenged the southern practice of segregated facilities by suing a railroad, and became a journalist devoted to exposing blacks unfair lot in society. In 1892 three of her friends were lynched by white mobs, and Wells wrote scathing exposes of the practice which received wide national attention. Facing intimidation and threats in Memphis, Wells became a traveling lecturer before marrying the Chicago attorney and publisher Ferdinand L. Barnett. In 1894 she published The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, which detailed blacks' exclusion from the fair by white organizers. After 1895 Wells largely confined herself to local political causes and raising her family.


In the 1880s and 1890s African Americans in the South faced rapidly deteriorating social and political conditions. As white supremacists returned to power after the end of Reconstruction, blacks lost the vote and the few vestiges of social equality they had briefly enjoyed. Lynching also became a frequent white tactic in the struggle to return African Americans to powerlessness. In this era some African Americans, like Wells, escaped the South and took up new lives in northern cities like Chicago. This movement would accelerate in the twentieth century.