​Chicago's Pullman district is becoming a national monument

CHICAGO -- On Chicago's far South Side, fenced off and rusting in the winter wind, are the pad-locked ruins of a time gone by, soon to be designated a national monument by President Barack Obama.

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George Pullman Pullman Museum

It's what's left of the industrial colossus built by railroad titan George Pullman -- a man whose sleeper cars once set the standard for rail travel and whose workers were among the first Americans to enter the middle class.

"I enjoyed working there," said Ray Quiroz. "I couldn't wait to get to work because I had fun."

Ray and his brother Al, worked at the Pullman Standard Factory for more than 20 years. They have lived in the Pullman neighborhood all their lives.

"We've got our roots here, I could kiss the ground," said Al. "Good memories, I used to go to work, I never missed a day, they taught unskilled people a trade."

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Former Pullman workers Ray Quiroz, left, with his brother Al CBS News

The unskilled included freed slaves who Pullman hired as sleeping-car porters. Lynn Hughes founded the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum.

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A Pullman porter Pullman Museum

"Those were very important jobs and those were jobs that allowed a man to provide for his family," said Hughes.

Pullman was a company town with homes built for workers. But Pullman didn't stop there. He built a hospital, a trade school and he built a 65-room hotel named for his daughter Florence.

Pullman was no saint though. He despised unions and endured bitter strikes. But ironically the diverse work force he employed fostered an environment that ushered in fair labor conditions and civil rights.

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Remains of the Pullman railroad town in Chicago, 2015 CBS News

Many here believe their history is America's history. Long after the plant closed, after fire consumed an entire wing of it and after the city considered leveling the whole area to build an industrial park, many of the people in Pullman stayed.

"As a city planning unit, it still works today," said Mike Shymanski, the president of the Historic Pullman Foundation. "Planners come here from all over the country -- all over the world -- and they study Pullman. I think it was a very positive, progressive experiment and that's what it was."

And it will be a national monument when President Obama designates it on Thursday.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.