The urban streets seem a long ways from pristine wilderness, but Superintendent Chris Stein of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway felt at home right away at Pullman National Monument in Chicago where the fabled Palace rail cars were built for more than half a century.
“The only way to effectively preserve the world’s special places is through the power of partnerships,” said Stein, who went to Pullman on loan from his St. Croix job.
“Pullman is rich in partners who want to preserve this special place and share its stories and lessons with people from across America and around the world. Working in this climate of partnerships is very important to me.”
Pullman is one of the nation’s newest National Park Service units, and Stein is known for his skill in building public and private partnerships to preserve the nation’s history. During the three months he spends in Chicago, he’ll help plan a visitor center and reach out however he can to build public interest in the Pullman site, which will celebrate its first birthday on Feb. 19.
Pullman’s acting superintendent is Paul Labovitz, who previously was superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area based in St. Paul. Labovitz is doing double duty as superintendent at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, Stein said.
Pullman’s location on the south side of Chicago, and the racially diverse neighborhood it encompasses, bring strategic significance to the National Park Service as it nears its centennial celebration in August.
“Certainly it’s an urban park,” Stein said. “As you drive up and down the streets, this architecture is visually astounding.”
The Pullman monument encompasses the factory building where rail cars were built and much of the manufactured neighborhood, where rows of brick buildings housed workers. George Pullman’s company town supported the Pullman Palace Car Company, which he founded in 1867.
Federal involvement in Pullman, Stein said, “will help with economic development in the area, it will help to bring this important national story to light.”
Stein will work with Sue Bennett, chief of interpretation, to plan the monument’s next phase. The visitor center will be built inside the Pullman administration building, which is being restored after an arsonist set fire to it in 1998.
Pullman’s Palace rail cars “catered to the affluent, yet offered opportunities to those less advantaged,” according to a park service brochure. “The company’s first porters and waiters were former house slaves. Pullman was one of few businessmen who hired African-Americans.”
Pullman leased sleeping cars to the railroads and provided employees needed to serve passengers. His plush cars were considered the nation’s finest, but he also built his company town on moral standards that excluded “baneful influences” and provided decent housing to people living in slums.
Pullman’s urban environment contrasts strongly with the pastoral Upper St. Croix, one of only 203 rivers in the nation protected under the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Stein is known as a defender of water quality, protecting the river corridor viewshed from distractions such as cell towers and helping people understand that the riverway is in fact a national park.
Among his recent initiatives was the “Monarch Corridor” to reverse a steep decline of monarch butterflies in the 800-square-mile riverway. The initiative includes potentially hundreds of partnerships with major companies such as Andersen Windows and with cities, counties, service clubs and individuals.
Concern about diminishing participation in national parks has grown as the nation’s demographics shift from the white, older and more affluent Americans who dominate the ranks of visitors. The Pullman park’s boundaries include two elementary schools, while the telling of Pullman history reaches far into Chicago’s past.
Stein was appointed superintendent of the St. Croix Riverway seven years ago. The massive park covers the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers and their watersheds north of Stillwater, with park headquarters in St. Croix Falls, Wis. He expects to return to the St. Croix Riverway by April.