Thursday, August 2, 2018

The History of the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company, Chicago (1865-1971).

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 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 heads 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 were merely a way station for cattle intended to be marketed as fresh meat. After being sold in Chicago, live cattle 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, peaking in 1924, more meat was processed in Chicago than elsewhere. 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" (PDF), which uncovered the horrid conditions in the stockyards around the beginning of the 20th century.


Before the various private stockyards were constructed, 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.

Several small stockyards were scattered throughout the City in the years that followed. Between 1852 and 1865, five railroads were constructed in 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.
Several factors contributed to the consolidation of the Chicago stockyards: the westward expansion of railroads between 1850 and 1870, which drove incredible commercial growth in Chicago as a major railroad center, and the Mississippi River blockade during the Civil War that closed all north-south river trade. The United States government purchased much beef and pork to feed the Union troops fighting the Civil War. As a consequence, hog receipts at the Chicago stockyards rose from 392,000 hogs in 1860 to 1,410,000 hogs over the winter butchering season of 1864-1865; over the same period, beef receipts in Chicago rose from 117,000 head to 339,000 head.

With an influx of butchers and small meat packing concerns, many businesses significantly increased to process the livestock 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 vast 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, designed to consolidate operations, was built in 1864 on swampland south of the City. It was south and west of the earlier stockyards in an area bounded by Halsted Street on the east, South Racine Avenue on the west, with 39th Street as the northern boundary and 47th Street as the southern boundary. Led by the Alton, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, a consortium of nine railroad companies (hence the "Union" name) acquired the 320-acre swampland area in southwest Chicago for $100,000 in 1864. The stockyards were connected to the City's main rail lines by 15 miles of track. In 1864, the Union Stock Yards were located just outside the southern boundary of the City of Chicago. Within five years, the area was incorporated into the City.
The Union Stock Yards in Chicago, 1878.
Eventually, the 375-acre site had 2300 separate livestock pens, room to accommodate 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle, and 22,000 sheep at any time. Additionally, hotels, saloons, restaurants, and offices for merchants and brokers sprang up in the growing community around the stockyards. Led by Timothy Blackstone, a founder and the first President of the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company, "The Yards" experienced tremendous growth. Processing two million animals yearly by 1870. In two decades, the number rose to nine million by 1890. Between 1865 and 1900, approximately 400 million livestock were butchered within the confines of the Yards.
By the start of the 20th century, the stockyards employed 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the domestic meat consumed nationally. In 1921, the stockyards employed 40,000 people. Two thousand men worked directly for the Union Stock Yard & Transit Co.; the rest worked for companies such as meatpackers, which had plant plants in the stockyards. By 1900, the 475-acre stockyard contained 50 miles of road and 130 miles of track along its perimeter. The Yards covered nearly 1 square mile of land, at its largest area, from Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue and from 39th (now Pershing Rd.) to 47th Streets.

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.
The meatpacking district was served between 1908 and 1957 by a short Chicago 'L' line, with several stops devoted primarily to the daily transport of thousands of workers and even tourists to the site. The line was constructed when the City of Chicago forced the removal of surface trackage on 40th Street.
Evolving transportation and distribution methods led to declining business and the closing of the Union Stock Yards in 1971. National Wrecking Company negotiated a contract whereby National Wrecking cleared a 102-acre site and removed some 50 acres of animal pens, auxiliary buildings, and the eight-story Exchange Building. It took approximately eight months to complete the job and prepare the site for building an industrial park.

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 to build a modern large-scale meatpacking plant in Chicago in 1867. The Armour plant was built at 45th Street and Elizabeth Avenue immediately west of the Union Stockyards. This new plant employed the modern "assembly line" (or rather disassembly line) work method. The mechanized process with its killing wheel and conveyors helped inspire the automobile assembly line 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. However, shipments were made only in winter 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
In addition, hedging transactions by stockyard companies was pivotal in establishing and growing Chicago-based commodity exchanges and future markets. Selling in the futures market gives the seller a guaranteed price for a future date. This was extremely helpful to those sellers who expected their cattle or hogs to come to market with a glut of other cattle or hogs when prices might be substantially lower than the guaranteed futures price.

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 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, initially 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 is under construction.
Packingtown had its own police chief and department and an elevated "L" train loop. A branch of the South Side elevated servicing the yards had stops named Swift and Armour, after major packers.

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 unnatural 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. Its International Amphitheater hosted an annual livestock exhibition and national political conventions.

Read about the December 22, 1910, Chicago Union Stockyard Fire, which destroyed $400,000 of property and killed twenty-one firemen, including Fire Marshal James J. Horan. 

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.
A more significant fire on Saturday, May 19, 1934, burned almost 90% of the stockyards, including the exchange building, stockyard inn, and the International Livestock Exposition building. This larger fire was seen as far away as Indiana and caused approximately $6 million in damages. While only one watchman was killed, a few cattle also perished, but the yards were in business the following Sunday evening.
The 1934 Stockyards Fire - The shading indicates the district was swept by flames.

Numbers show principal buildings. ① Office building. ② Saddle and Sirloin Club. ③ The Stockyards Inn. ④ Drovers' National Bank. ⑤ International amphitheater. ⑥ Another International Live Stock show building. ⑦ Horse auction barns. ⑧ Transportation Agencies building. ⑨ Illinois Humane Society building. ⑩ the United States Department of Agriculture building. ⑪ Exchange building and radio station WAAF. ⑫ Buying offices of Armour & Co. ⑬ Old Exchange building. ⑭ Stores and offices. ⑮ The Drovers' Journal. ⑯ Live Stock National Bank. ⑰ Warehouses. ⑱ Stock pens.
Following the new Union Stockyards opening 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. It is 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, although volume had begun to ebb as packers moved west to be closer to their sources, the Stock Yards employed 55,000 people and were responsible for one-sixth of the hourly wages in Chicago.

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 the "Town of Lake," but 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 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. However, operations for this early stockyard 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 area newspaper 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 stockyards' prosperity was due to the concentration of railroads and the evolution of refrigerated railroad cars. It declined 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 surrendered and vacated their plants in the Yards in the 1950s.

The Union Stock Yards closed on 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.

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.
The steer head over the central arch is considered "Sherman," a prize-winning bull named after John B. Sherman, a Union Stock Yard and Transit Company founder. The Union Stock Yard Gate was designated a Chicago Landmark on February 24, 1972, and a National Historic Landmark on May 29, 1981.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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