|The Stock Yard Entrance Gate|
The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co., or "The Yards," was the meatpacking district in Chicago for more than a century, starting in 1865. The district was operated by a group of railroad companies that acquired swampland and turned it into a centralized processing area. By the 1890s, the railroad money behind the Union Stockyards was Vanderbilt's money. The Union Stockyards operated in the New City community area for 106 years, helping Chicago become known as "hog butcher to the world," coined by poet Carl Sandburg, and the center of the American meatpacking industry for decades.
It was called "Union" because seven separate stockyards contributed the $1.5 million it took to build enough pens to house 100,000 hogs and 10,000 head of cattle. Priding itself as an "open, free, public market," the Stock Yards housed more than 1 billion animals in the 105 years it operated. This was significant because in its early years, the Stock Yards was merely a way station for cattle intended to be marketed as fresh meat. After being sold in Chicago, live cattle would be shipped by rail in boxcars to New York, Boston and other eastern cities. (They were shipped live because meat, once killed and dressed, spoiled easily.)
The stockyards became the focal point of the rise of some of the earliest international companies. These companies refined novel industrial innovations and influenced financial markets. Both the rise and fall of the district owe their fortunes to the evolution of transportation services and technology in America. The stockyards have become an integral part of the popular culture of Chicago's history.
From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the end of the 1920s and peaking in 1924, more meat was processed in Chicago than in any other place in the world. Construction began in June 1865 with an opening on Christmas Day in 1865. The Yards closed at midnight on Friday, July 30, 1971, after several decades of decline during the decentralization of the meatpacking industry.
In 1906 Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle," (in PDF) which uncovering the horrid conditions in the stockyards around the beginning of the 20th century.
Before the construction of the various private stockyards, tavern owners provided pastures and care for cattle herds waiting to be sold. With the spreading service of railroads, several small stockyards were created in and around the City of Chicago. In 1848, a stockyard called the Bulls Head Market was opened to the public. The Bulls Head Stock Yards were located at Madison Street and Ogden Avenue and opened in 1848.
In the years that followed, several small stockyards were scattered throughout the city. Between 1852 and 1865, five railroads were constructed to Chicago. The stockyards that sprang up were usually built along various rail lines of these new railroad companies. Some railroads built their own stockyards in Chicago. The Illinois Central and the Michigan Central railroads combined to build the largest set of pens on the lakeshore east of Cottage Grove Avenue from 29th Street to 35th Street. In 1878, the New York Central Railroad managed to buy a controlling interest in the Michigan Central Railroad. In this way, Cornelius Vanderbilt, owner of the New York Central Railroad, got his start in the stockyard business in Chicago.
|Original Plan of the Stockyards.|
With an influx of butchers and small meat packing concerns, the number of businesses greatly increased to process the flood of livestock being shipped to the Chicago stockyards. The goal was to butcher and process the livestock locally rather than transferring it to other northern cities for butchering and processing. Keeping up with the huge number of animals arriving each day proved impossible until a new wave of consolidation and modernization altered the meatpacking business in the post-Civil War era.
|Union Stock Yards Illustration, by Louis Kurz. September 1866|
|The Union Stock Yards in Chicago, 1878.|
At one time, 500,000 US gallons a day of Chicago River water were pumped into the stockyards. So much stockyard waste drained into the South Fork of the river that it was called Bubbly Creek due to the gaseous products of decomposition. The creek bubbles to this day. When the City permanently reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900, the intent was to prevent the Stock Yards' waste products, along with other sewage, from flowing into Lake Michigan and contaminating the City's drinking water.
EFFECT ON THE INDUSTRY
The area and scale of the stockyards, along with technological advancements in rail transport and refrigeration, allowed for the creation of some of America's first truly global companies led by entrepreneurs such as Gustavus Franklin Swift and Philip Danforth Armour.
Philip Armour was the first person to build a modern large-scale meatpacking plant in Chicago in 1867. The Armour plant was built at 45th Street and Elizabeth Avenue immediately to the west of the Union Stockyards. This new plant employed the modern "assembly line" (or rather dis-assembly line) method of work. The mechanized process with its killing wheel and conveyors helped inspire the automobile assembly line that Henry Ford popularized in 1913. For a time the Armour plant, located on a 12-acre site, was renowned as the largest factory in the world.
But Gustavus Swift went further. Arriving in Chicago from New England in 1875, he saw the inefficiency and extra cost of shipping cattle on the hoof and set out to change the practice. He was opposed by railroad executives because whole animals filled many more boxcars than dressed meat and brought enormous revenue to the railroads. Swift convinced one railroad to cooperate with him and the first dressed, unpreserved beef was sent by train from Chicago to Boston in 1877. Shipments were made only in winter, though, until Swift introduced the refrigerated boxcar in 1881. Eventually, the company owned 6,000 of them.
|Leading the World – Pork and Beef Packing in Chicago, Showing the Great Process of Curing the Great Staple for the Markets of the World.|
① Coopering Department, ② Bird’s Eye View of the Great Packing Houses of Messrs. Armour & Co. located at the Union Stockyards, ③ The Lard Tanks, ④ Cooling Room for Hams, ⑤ Hanging Room for Beeves, ⑥ Interior of Ham House, ⑦ General View of Cellar and Bulking Rooms, ⑧ Hog Cutting, ⑨ Hanging Room for Hogs, ⑩ Beef Cutting By Steam Power, ⑪ Exterior View of Smoke Houses. 1873
Following the arrival of Armour in 1867, the Swift company built another modern large-scale meatpacking plant at 42nd Street and South Justine Street. The Morris Company built a meatpacking plant at 42nd Street and Elizabeth Street. The Hammond Company and the Wilson Company also built a meatpacking plant in the area west of the Chicago stockyards. Eventually, meatpacking byproduct manufacturing of leather, soap, fertilizer, glue (such as the large glue factory located at 44th Street and Loomis Street), pharmaceuticals, imitation ivory, gelatin, shoe polish, buttons, perfume, and violin strings prospered in the neighborhood. Additionally, there was a "Hair Factory," located at 44th Street and Ashland Avenue, which processed hair from butchered animals into saleable items.
Next to the Union Stock Yards, the International Amphitheatre building was built on the west side of Halsted Street at 42nd Street in the 1930s, originally to hold the annual International Live Stock Exposition which began in 1900. It became a venue for many national conventions.
Before and after the Great Fire of 1871, cattle ranchers, pig farmers and cowboys from nearby states and as far away as Montana and Texas, some wearing "buffalo coats" or "bearskins," mingled with members of the Livestock Traders Exchange, the traders who bought and sold animals daily, thus establishing prices. By the turn of the 20th century, the meatpacking industry in Chicago produced 82% of all the meat eaten in the United States.
Packingtown was the residential portion of the Union Stock Yards, just to its west. Packingtown had a baseball league. According to the Trib's scorecard, on opening day 1918, the Wilsons beat the Soap Works, 14-8.
|A typical Packingtown residential street under construction.|
Packingtown had its natural disasters — like the 1910 fire that took the lives of 24 firefighters including the department's chief, and the 1934 fire that raged across much of the yards and the surrounding area. It had its own un-natural wonder, Bubbly Creek, a stub of the Chicago River where the slaughterhouses dumped animal entrails and internal organs. But Packingtown also had an upscale restaurant, the Stockyards Inn, where steaks were branded with patrons' initials. And its International Amphitheater hosted an annual livestock exhibition as well as national political conventions.
THE 1910 FIRE
Read about December 22, 1910, Chicago Union Stockyard Fire which destroyed $400,000 of property and killed twenty-one firemen, including the Fire Marshal James J. Horan.
THE 1934 FIRE
|An aerial photograph shows fire moving eastward across the northern portion of Union Stockyards. The view is northeastward, with the World’s Fairgrounds and the lake in the upper left corner.|
Following the opening of the new Union Stockyards on December 25, 1865, a community of workers began living in the area just west of the packing plants between Ashland Avenue and South Robey Street and bounded on the north by 43rd Street and on the south by 47th Street. At first, the residents were overwhelmingly Irish and German—60% Irish and 30% German.
The overwhelming sensation about the neighborhood was the smell of the community caused not just by the packing plants located immediately to the east, but also by the 345-acre Chicago Union Stock Yards containing 2,300 pens of livestock, located further east from the packing plants.
During the Great Depression years, even though volume had begun to ebb as packers moved west to be closer to their sources, the Stock Yards stilled employed 55,000 people and was responsible for one-sixth of the hourly wages paid in Chicago.
BACK OF THE YARDS COMMUNITY
Officially designated the "Town of Lake" until its annexation into the City of Chicago in about 1870, the neighborhood was known locally as "Packingtown." It was the first pioneers, S.S. Crocker and John Caffrey, to the area that first called it "Town of Lake." Indeed, Crocker earned the nickname "Father of the Town of Lake." By February 1865 the area was incorporated officially as "Town of Lake" the area still consisted of fewer than 700 persons. In the early 1860s, the meatpacking industry of the United States was still located in Cincinnati, Ohio, the original "Porkopolis" of the pre-Civil War era. However, with the end of the American Civil War, the meatpacking industry had started to move westward along with the westward migration of the population of the United States. For the meatpacking industry moving west meant coming to Chicago. As early as 1827, Archibald Clybourn had established himself as a butcher in a log slaughterhouse on the north branch of the Chicago River and supplied most to the garrison of Fort Dearborn.
Other small butchers came later. In 1848, the Bull's Head Stockyard began operations at Madison Street and Ogden Avenue on the West Side of Chicago. Operations for this early stockyard, however, still meant holding and feeding cattle and hogs in transit to meatpacking plants further east—Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
Settlement in the area that was to become known as the "Back of the Yards" began in the 1850s before there were any meat packers or stockyards in the area. At this time the area was known as the "Town of Lake." Indeed, the area would continue to be called the Town of Lake until 1939. Witness that the newspaper of the area was called the Town of Lake Journal. Only with the founding of the community organization called the "Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council" in 1939 did the neighborhood west and south of the meat packinghouses start being called the "Back of the Yards." It was a name that the residents proudly claimed as their own. In 1939, the Town of Lake Journal officially changed its name to Back of the Yards Journal.
THE DECLINE OF THE STOCKYARDS
The prosperity of the stockyards was due to both the concentration of railroads and the evolution of refrigerated railroad cars. Its decline was due to further advances in post-World War II transportation and distribution. Direct sales of livestock from breeders to packers, facilitated by advancement in interstate trucking, made it cheaper to slaughter animals where they were raised and excluded the intermediary stockyards. At first, the major meatpacking companies resisted change, but Swift and Armour both surrendered and vacated their plants in the Yards in the 1950s.
The Union Stock Yards closed July 31, 1971. The area bounded by Pershing Road, Ashland, Halsted, and 47th Street became The Stockyards, Industrial Park. The neighborhood to the west and south of the industrial park is still known as Back of the Yards and is still home to a thriving immigrant population.
THE ENTRANCE GATE
A remnant of the Union Stock Yard Gate still arches over Exchange Avenue, next to the firefighters' memorial, and can be seen by those driving along Halsted Street. This limestone gate, marking the entrance to the stockyards, survives as one of the few relics of Chicago's heritage of livestock and meatpacking.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.