For about a century, the Chicago Stockyards were one of the city's world-famous wonders, visited by princes and maharajahs and almost every tourist. "Not to see the Yards is to miss seeing Chicago," one guidebook noted. Most visitors marveled at the sight of the stock pens stretching as far as the eye could see. Others, from Upton Sinclair to Rudyard Kipling, took darker views. "One cannot stand and watch long," Sinclair wrote in "The Jungle," his 1906 expose of the meatpacking industry, "without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and hear the hog-squeal of the universe."
The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. of Chicago received its first bellowing arrivals on Christmas Day 1865 in 15 rickety cattle-cars pulled by a puffing, wood-burning locomotive. Chicago's already prosperous meatpacking industry had boomed during the Civil War to become the largest in the world because of the Union Army's ravenous demand; consolidating the city's scattered stockyards at one large site seemed the only way to handle the growth. To make the tract of swampland usable, some 1,000 men dug 30 miles of ditches and drains that emptied into a fork of the Chicago River, later to become notorious as Bubbly Creek when its waters thickened with pungent slaughterhouse offal.
The yards, which covered a half square mile west of Halsted Street between Pershing Road and 47th Street, were soon filled "with so many cattle as no-one had ever dreamed existed in the world," noted one writer. "Red, black, white and yellow cattle. Great bellowing bulls and little calves not an hour born. Meek-eyed milch cows and fierce, long-horned Texas steers."During the peak times of World War I, 15 million animals a year moved through Chicago, almost 9 million pounds of meat a day. Nor was there money only in meat. Profits for such tycoons as Gustavus F. Swift and Philip Armour also came from hides, hair, wool, bones, horn, fertilizer, glue, fats and materials for toothbrush handles, chessmen and strings for musical instruments. It became a commonplace that Chicago packers used every part of a hog but its squeal.
Times changed when refrigerated trucks and the interstate highway system made the old railroad-based stockyards obsolete. Packers decentralized and moved plants west. The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. held on until 1971, when it closed forever, leaving behind only an entranceway arch.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun