Chicago Union Stock Yards

The Birth of the Chicago Union Stock Yards

    The rise and dominance of Chicago's Union Stock Yards marks a significant period in the city's economic and social history. In 1848, when Chicago was only a connection for transporting livestock from the West to the rest of the country, small stockyards such as Lake Shore Yard and Cottage Grove Yard were scattered throughout the city along various rail lines.

    Several factors contributed to Chicago's need for a larger, more centralized, and efficient stockyard. One of these was the westward expansion of railroads, causing Chicago to evolve into a major railroad center and experience massive commercial growth. Another factor was the Mississippi River blockade during the Civil War that closed the north-south river trade route. A third factor was the influx of meatpackers and livestock to Chicago - the city's small stockyards were not equipped to manage the exponential growth of the meatpacking industry.

    In order to build the new centralized stockyard, a consortium of nine railroad companies purchased a 320-acre area of swampy land in southwest Chicago for $100,000 in 1864. Using Chicago as a hub, this new stockyard would serve as a commercial link between America's East and West.

Livestock pens comprised approximately 40 acres of
the stock yards, 1880.

    The stockyards' ultimate boundaries were Pershing Avenue, Halsted Street, 47th Street, and Ashland Avenue. Civil engineer Octave Chanute designed the plan and Chicago's Union Stock Yard and Transit Company officially opened on Christmas Day 1865. Fifteen miles of track delivered livestock directly to the stockyards from the city's main rail lines. Five hundred thousand gallons of fresh water were pumped daily from the Chicago River into the yards, and waste drained into a fork of the river that would be dubbed "Bubbly Creek" due to the contamination. Drovers herded cattle, hogs, and sheep down two wide thoroughfares from the railroad cars to the pens. By 1900, the stockyard grew to 475 acres, contained 50 miles of road, and had 130 miles of track along its perimeter.

Meatpacking Technology

    Soon after the creation of the Union Stock Yards, various meatpacking companies established operations around the yards. One of the earliest to move into the area was the Armour plant in 1867. Armour, along with several other large meatpacking firms, including Swift, Morris, and Hammond, came to dominate the industry. At the turn of the century, Chicago's meatpacking industry employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States. In addition to processing meat, the packinghouses made creative and lucrative use of slaughterhouse by-products. They built factories to manufacture items such as leather, soap, fertilizer, glue, imitation ivory, gelatin, shoe polish, buttons, perfume, and violin strings.

    Technological breakthroughs dramatically altered work in the meatpacking plants. In 1872, packers began using newly invented ice-cooled units to preserve meat. With this technology, meatpacking was no longer limited to cold weather months; it could continue year-round. In 1882, Gustavus Swift developed the first refrigerated railroad car, thus making it possible to ship processed meat instead of live animals to America's eastern markets.

    Decades prior to the creation of Henry Ford's Model T, Chicago meatpacking plants pioneered assembly line production. Meatpackers compartmentalized the work of slaughtering animals so that each laborer needed to learn only one technique. Hog carcasses were pulled along an overhead rail from worker to worker, and power lifts helped move large, heavy cattle carcasses along the assembly line. In addition, assembly lines also speeded up the canning and packaging operations, allowing for thousands of animals to be slaughtered and processed daily.

Slaughterhouse Jobs

Less than ideal working conditions, such as blood-soaked
 floors, were common in slaughterhouses, 1892.

    The working conditions for the thousands employed at the Union Stock Yards were abhorrent. Laborers on the killing floors had to work amidst the stench and piercing shrieks of animals being slaughtered while standing on blood-soaked floors. They worked long hours-usually ten to twelve a day-in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the summertime. Stockyard employers could keep wages low and withhold benefits due to the ready supply of immigrant workers desperate to earn a living.

    Most jobs required little skill; only the butchers with their highly specialized cutting techniques were considered skilled workers. Workers could learn quickly the one-step assembly line tasks, making the stockyards an attractive prospect to those immigrants who arrived without work skills or spoke limited English. Irish and German immigrants were among the first ethnic groups to seek stockyard employment in the late nineteenth century. Bohemians, Poles, Slavs, other Eastern European immigrants, and, later, African Americans and Mexicans added to the culturally diverse workforce. The packinghouses also employed women as packagers and children as messengers, paying them a fraction of the amount adult male workers earned.

Women generally worked as packagers
in meatpacking plants

    Workers went on strike and attempted to unionize in an effort to improve their harsh working conditions, however the early attempts were relatively unsuccessful. Two significant efforts were made in 1894 and 1904, but both failed due to strikers' inability to form a cohesive, effectual group.  In 1894, stockyard butchers went on strike to demand higher wages, but their solitary effort was doomed without the support of their unskilled co-workers. Because of this, the meatpacking conglomerates had little problem finding strikebreakers to fill the vacant positions.

1904 Union Stock Yards strike

    In 1904, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen's (AMC) attempt to unionize was foiled by the leaders' inability to join people of various ethnic groups into a unified group. To further complicate the union's problems, employers hired African Americans as strikebreakers, prompting social conflict and riots between black and white workers. The employers were right to assume that unions would have difficulty organizing across racial lines. This proved problematic for many years to come.

    The hardship workers endured throughout the Great Depression helped break down barriers between different ethnic groups and races, making union organizing more successful. In addition, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively and outlawed practices used by employers to discourage unionizing. The Congress of Industrial Organizations' Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, established in 1937, did much to unify laborers and better their working conditions.

 Back of the Yards

    Soon after the first meatpacking plants opened up, workers' cottages and tenement housing were built in the area around the Chicago Union Stock Yards. Bordered by Pershing Road (39th Street), Garfield Boulevard (55th Street), Racine Avenue, and Western Avenue, the neighborhood grew over the years and eventually became known as Back of the Yards.

Back of the Yards ethnic neighborhoods - 1909

    Just as the Irish and Germans were among the first to work in the stockyards, so too were they the first to inhabit this neighborhood. Bohemians, Poles, Slavs, Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians, African Americans, and Mexicans followed suit with each ethnic group settling in a different area of the neighborhood. Although language barriers and customs separated these groups, Back of the Yards residents shared two common characteristics: stockyard employment and a strong sense of ethnic identity.  The living conditions in the neighborhood were far from ideal. Poverty, overcrowding, and illness plagued its residents. In 1889, Chicago laid sewer lines and paved some of the larger streets, but much of the neighborhood remained unimproved.

    The working-class neighborhood needed community reform and grass roots organizing, and it found both in three dedicated individuals: Mary McDowell, Saul Alinsky, and Joseph Meegan. In 1894, Mary McDowell started the University of Chicago Settlement House, located near the stockyards. McDowell is best known for her successful campaign to close several disease-infested garbage dumps in Back of the Yards, her help in creating Davis Square Park, and her support for unions during the 1904 strike. She also assisted Mexican immigrants in the neighborhood by providing meeting spaces for religious services and organizing athletic and cultural programs such as team sports, dances, and English lessons.

    In 1939, Saul Alinsky and Joseph Meegan took community reform one step further and united the various ethnic groups into one community via the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. Alinsky and Meegan adopted the commonly used moniker, Back of the Yards, and made it the official neighborhood name, thus encouraging unity and community identity among its residents. Relying upon their visions of community reform as well as their ability to organize people, Alinsky and Meegan worked with the city government, area businesses, unionizers, and religious leaders to ensure neighborhood improvements. These included youth programs, support for unionization, and better housing conditions.

    Today, Back of the Yards maintains a substantial working-class population despite the absence of the stockyards and meatpacking companies. After the stockyards closed in 1971, the neighborhood actually experienced positive growth and development. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council urged residents to stay in the area and for businesses and individuals alike to remodel old structures and build new ones to deal with the changing economy.


Chicago Union Stock Yard gate at Exchange Avenue