Exhibit on Chicago railroad workers pulls into Pullman

Exhibits on the history of railroads often focus on the machinery — flashy, loud, showy.

That’s understandable, Scott Lothes said. 

“Trains are big and loud and fascinating,” said Lothes, president and executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. “They really command a lot of attention. But ultimately, it’s the people that make it run.”

That’s what the Historic Pullman Foundation is doing, with a display of photographs showing the people who worked in the industry during World War II. It will be at the Pullman Exhibit Hall through the end of the year.

“Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography,” was born from a partnership between the Chicago History Museum and Lothes’ Wisconsin-based center, which originally curated the photos and other items on display.

In all, the project has 60 photos Delano took of railroad workers in 1942 and 1943, as part of his assignment from the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information. Thousands of Delano’s photos from the series are now in the Library of Congress. Delano, who died in 1997, also took photographs for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

After stops at the Chicago History Museum and the Peoria Riverfront Museum, arriving in Pullman is a homecoming of sorts for the exhibit. 

“It’s really about Chicago,” said Julian Jackson, executive director of the Historic Pullman Foundation. “It’s a Chicago story of Jack Delano coming in and recording the lives and the history of people working on the railroads in a variety of different capacities during World War II in and around Chicago.” 

Pullman is also an excellent place to showcase Delano’s thoughtful vignettes of the diverse people behind the thriving industry, Jackson said. 

“There were people from a wide array of backgrounds and Delano really tried to seek them out and share their stories in a way that was more humanistic rather than focused on the technology or the hardware of railroading,” he said.

In fact, the neighborhood was essentially created as housing for George Pullman’s railroad car company, the  Pullman Palace Car Co., in the 1880s. 

“As we’ve been drawing attention to Pullman’s role in the development of railroad innovation and its near and dear position in railroaders’ hearts, we thought that this would be a great way to kick off a new series of traveling exhibitions,” Jackson added.

Delano wasn’t focusing on George Pullman’s innovation when it came to railroads, Jackson says.

“There are photos that are in the Pullman neighborhood,” Jackson said. “But it is more indicative of the important role that Chicago played in the railroads during World War II, of which Pullman was a prime contributor.”

Accompanying the photos are biographies of the workers, “delving into the stories” behind the art, Jackson said. One focus is the women who stepped into major roles at the railroads while their husbands were away fighting in the war.

The railroader families depicted have many connections to present-day Chicagoan generations, Lothes says. 

“Even though we kind of think of the railroad today as being sort of in the shadows of modern life, it’s still very much a presence in people’s lives and something that they can connect to,” he said.

Along with Delano’s photographs, some artifacts from the time are included, and there are model trains for children to play with.

Jackson says future exhibits being planned will include ones spotlighting the labor movement and architecture in the community. 

The exhibit hall also includes a display on Pullman’s history, and Jackson hopes the neighborhood and its history will continue to capture the attention of Chicagoans and visitors. 

“Pullman is having a moment here,” Jackson said. “People are really beginning to pay attention to the history that’s embedded in this community.”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

A new photo display at the Pullman Exhibit Hall features the work of Jack Delano. Brian Rich/Sun-Times

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