Christmas Day 1865 - Chicago, IL. A wood burning locomotive reaches its final destination and 15 cattle cars are unloaded at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street. Chicago has less people than St. Louis but that won't last for long and this one little transaction starts it all. Illinois begins to drink Missouri's milkshake.
Prior to the Civil War, St. Louis had a population of over 75,000 while Chicago barely had 25,000. St. Louis was a thriving river city that had been incorporated in 1764, older than the United States of America itself. The Chicago little brother relationship would have continued except the Civil War got in the way. Union troops blockaded the Mississippi River in 1861 and continued through 1865. St. Louis' mode of trade and a majority of their business, the Southern states, were cutoff completely. Missouri was a slave state with union tendencies making it a battleground and more importantly a trader's nightmare in the interior. Cut off to the North, West, and South, trade in St. Louis ground to a halt.
Chicago happily stepped up to the plate where St. Louis could not and started laying out their own infrastructure. Anyone with a cleaver and some land could build a small stockyard of their own to buy livestock from ranchers coming to Chicago. Demand was driven sky high because the Union Army had a, well yes, an army to feed. Traders who 'didn't do' Chicago before had no choice but to get in the action. Ranchers who were sending their cows over Missouri had no choice but to send them around the infighting and to the only city that could handle the traffic - Chicago. A new reputation was born in the West, 'If you want something done, you go to Chicago'. In four years this city was home to the biggest meatpacking industry in the world. Rather than rest on these laurels, a group of businessmen realized that the artificial war market was going to dry up and a centralized system needed to be put into place in order to maintain Chicago's new found dominance.
The Union Stock Yard and Transit Company of Chicago was born and the stockyards themselves were carved out of swampland. At the Stockyards height, they covered an area bordered by Pershing to the north, Ashland to the west, 47th to the south, and Halsted to the east. You can see US Cellular field to the Northeast on that map, picture 9 or 10 of those all lined up together to get an idea of the massive size. You can also see the railroad tracks that still exist today, just consider some tracks were torn up as the Stockyards power began to wane. If you can believe it, some of those were even built for tourists. Travel guides advertised that no trip to Chicago was complete without visiting what made this city the 'Hog Butcher of the World'.
I'm curious as to what the early tourists saw... As much as the stockyards were a great economic engine, they were also horrific as detailed by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Did people get to hold their own cleavers? Ride the cattle locomotives into the slaughterhouse? What kind of souvenirs did one take away from the stockyards? On second thought, let's not dwell on that too long.
The Union Stock Yard and Transit Company peaked in 1924 and basically fell every year after that as refrigerated trucks meant livestock did not need to be transported to one place to maximize freshness. Some of the side businesses (hides, fertilizers, wool, glue, etc.) of the Stockyards continued to go strong but the whole thing shut down in 1971. As we take on Kansas City tonight, we should remember that if St. Louis would have held strong during the Civil War, Missouri could have had the main trading center in St. Louis and the world's main stockyards in Kansas City. After all, it was Kansas City that became home to the second largest stockyards in the world... but never the first. If it weren't for the founders of the Chicago Stockyards centralizing everything, all of the trade and the meat industry could have fallen into Missouri's hands.
While we should celebrate the economic victory, we should never forget the negative side of the stockyards. The Jungle is fiction but it is based on true stories collected by Upton Sinclair. Workers were treated to horrible conditions. Food was not up to today's standards of preparation. Hell, some of it wasn't even up to the standards of 1800's preparation. Overall the Chicago Stockyards are a lesson that some of the most successful things are not always built 'pretty'. There is mess to be had in success. Chicago itself optimizes this theory and Carl Sandburg said it best in his poem 'Chicago':
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Let's beat Kansas City like we have many times before. It may not be pretty but let's make it Chicago.