Chicago’s Union Stockyards Gate

Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, Illinois

August 9th, 2017, morning

~ Dedicated to Tracy Runyon 

This July and August, I’ve toured the United States for about three weeks before crossing the seas to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve driven north from Oakland, California to Spokane, Washington and zigzagged my way east to Chicago, visiting places as far north as Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota to as far south as Hannibal, Missouri. It’s been an absolutely exciting and glorious journey, and I’m not at all ready for it to end.

Yet today’s my last day in Chicago; I fly out headed for Europe this evening. There’s plenty of time to make a couple of stops today at interesting historical sites besides taking care of last minute details (donating my tent and other things I don’t want to lug with me to Europe to a thrift store, returning the rental car, etc). My first stop is a special request from a dear friend, who also generously helped sponsor this trip.

On June 1st, 1865, a crew of workmen began work on what would be the first example of modern industrial production of food on a massive scale. The Union Stockyards opened on Christmas Day that same year: ‘The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. of Chicago received its first bellowing arrivals on Christmas Day 1865. …[It] covered a half square mile west of Halsted Street between Pershing Road and 47th Street- Anderson … [and] held on until 1971, when it closed forever…’, wrote Jon Anderson for the Chicago Tribune.

The Great Union Stock Yards of Chicago, ca. 1878, by Charles Rascher. Published by Walsh & Co of Chicago. Public domain via Library of Congress

I’m standing here in front of a pale limestone gateway at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street. This gateway was built around a decade and a half after the work on the stockyards began, but my sources differ as to exactly when. One source says 1875, another says 1879, yet another says the exact date is unrecorded and therefore unknown. I do find an illustration of the stockyards by Charles Rascher published in 1878 and a gate like this appears to be included in it: if you look closely at the top of the quarter-circle formed by the curved railways and straight roads along Transit Park in the lower half of the picture, you’ll see a three-arched light-colored gateway represented there. However, the top of the gate in the illustration is flat across the top while this is not; it’s hard to say whether it’s the same gate represented a little inaccurately, or an earlier gate at the site. The current gateway was almost certainly designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root, who designed other buildings at the stockyards.

Another view of the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago. According to the City of Chicago’s Chicago Landmark website, ‘The limestone steer head over the central arch is traditionally thought to represent “Sherman,” a prize-winning bull named after John B. Sherman, one of the founders of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company.’

Leslie Orear plaque at the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, Illinois

The 320-acre expanse of land that the stockyards occupied at its largest, like the site of our nation’s capital, was once conveniently-located but hard-to-develop swampland, and therefore available for builders visionary and determined (crazy?) enough to transform it. The stockyards were built because for many years, livestock traders and meatpackers thought that operating scattered yards and plants was far less efficient than one unified, or ‘union’ stockyard would be. Civil engineer Octave Chanute designed the grid layout which would make it possible to process live animals into fresh and packed meat products at a rate incredible at the time: down from 8-10 hours for a single butcher, even with assistants, to 35 minutes per animal passing through a Union slaughterhouse’s assembly line. John B. Sherman, who had owned one of Chicago’s earlier largest stockyards, oversaw all this efficiency, managing the Union Stockyards and the Transit Company for many years. According to tradition, it’s the head of a bull named after him that’s sculpted above the center arch of the gate.

Stock Yards National Bank Building near the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, IL. It was built in 1925 and its design inspired by Independence Hall in Philadelphia

Stock Yards National Bank Building near the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, IL. The words inscribed in the arched niche in the low wall marking the old rail line read: ‘In Honor of Those Who Traveled this Path to Toil at the Union Stockyards’

Even more than for their size and efficiency, the Union Stockyards are likely most often brought to mind today for the horrific scenes described by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 book The Jungle. Sinclair, a socialist, wanted to demonstrate that unfettered capitalism did not, as it was so often claimed, result in more good than harm for working people, or reliably produce safe, quality products. His novel described the exploitation of desperate immigrants working for obscenely low wages in dangerous and filthy conditions; poorly fed, overcrowded, and sickly livestock; diseased livestock and other animals not legal to butcher for food processed into meat;  rotten meat and extremely poor quality offal disguised by heavy processing and spices in packed meat products; and so forth. While many protested that Sinclair’s novel was just that, all fiction, the public outcry reached many public figures and worker’s rights activists ready to receive his message, including Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt. He immediately sent out an inspection team who found that the very same conditions that Upton described so graphically were, in fact, rampant at the stockyards. Sweeping legislation protecting worker and consumer health and safety followed soon after.

Over time, as transportation became more efficient, it also became more efficient and much cheaper for meat producers to process livestock where they were raised. The shrinking Union Stockyards closed for good in 1971. Its arched limestone gate was declared a public landmark on February 24th, 1972.

See below for links for more excellent introductory sources to the history of the Union Stockyards, and scroll down to see the two signs I find at the site which also provide a brief history.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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Sources and inspiration

Anderson, Jon. ‘The Chicago Stockyards Open‘, Chicago Tribune 

Bramley, Anne. ‘How Chicago’s Slaughterhouse Spectacles Paved The Way For Big Meat.’ NPR: The Salt, Dec 3, 2015

Chicago Landmarks. ‘Stock Yards National Bank (Former)‘ and ‘Union Stock Yard Gate.‘ Website published by the City of Chicago

City of Chicago Landmark Designation Reports #210: Union Stock Yard Gate. City of Chicago, 1976.

Gregory, Terry. ‘Union Stockyards.’ Chicagology website

Rouse, Kristen L. ‘Meat Inspection Act of 1906.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Twa, Garth. ‘The Jungle.Encyclopædia Britannica

Wilson, Mark R., Stephen R. Porter, and Janice L. Reiff. ‘Union Stock Yard & Transit Co.‘ The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Happy Birthday, John Jones!

John Jones, portrait by Mosher & Baldwin, 1882, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

When I visited Springfield, Illinois this summer, I found a very interesting plaque at the Old State House downtown. It told the story of John Jones and his activism against Illinois’s Black Laws, a set of legal codes that pertained only to black people, and, as you likely and immediately supposed,  were terribly oppressive. Such laws have a long history in the United States and as long as they’ve been around, lovers of justice have been around to fight them. John Jones was one such person.

Born on November 3rd, 1816 to an American black mother and German white father, Jones had to make his own way early in the world. Jones’ mother did not trust his father to do right by his son so she apprenticed him to a tailor when he was very young. The resourceful Jones taught himself to read and write and, having learned what he needed to, he released himself from the tailor’s service by age 27. He then obtained official free papers for himself and his wife, née Mary Jane Richardson, and secured their freedom to live and travel by posting a $1,000 bond in 1844. While he and his wife were both born free, they had to worry about the numerous ‘fugitive’ slave catchers and kidnappers prowling around, all too happy to capture as many black persons as they could get ahold of, passing them off as escaped slaves in exchange for a substantial payoff.

The Joneses moved to Chicago from Alton, Illinois in 1845, where there was an established community of black entrepreneurs and therefore, more opportunities for families such as theirs. Jones worked hard and savvily, building up a very successful tailoring business and amassing an impressive fortune within just a few years. The Joneses used their success to help their fellow black citizens, making their home one of the key Chicago stops on the Underground Railroad. Jones poured much of his money and time into civil rights activism, working for the abolitionist cause and to overturn the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the already decades-old Black Laws of Illinois, sometimes with his fellow autodidact and activist Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, Jones was a prominent intellectual, moral, religious, and political leader in the black community of Chicago and beyond.

Learn more about the courageous civil rights leader John Jones at:

John Jones (1816–1879): Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur  ~ by Jessie Carney Smith for Encyclopedia.com

Jones, John ~ by Cynthia Wilson for Blackpast.org

Historical placard for John Jones, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way.

During this journey, I’ll explore Yellowstone and the history of National Parks in America (it’s been a great NP year for me!); I’ll travel throughout the Great Plains following the history of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, the Lakota and their and other Native Americans’ encounters with white invaders in the 1800’s and beyond; I’ll visit Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago following Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, uniquely American forms of art and architecture, and other topics. I’ll also make many more stops and detours along the way.

Patrons of this series: Ervin Epstein MD, Liz and Russ Eagle, Tracy Runyon, Genessa Kealoha, the Cools-Ramsden family, and Shannon Harrod Reyes ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh
Bitterroot Mountains and the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge Hike
Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2
The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 1
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2
My Great Year for National Parks, Monuments, and Forests
Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse
Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Debate
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Athens and Springfield, Illinois, Part 1, In Search of Abraham Lincoln
Photobook: Marker and Train Station Where Abraham Lincoln’s Body Returned to Springfield, Illinois, May 3rd, 1865
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 4
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 5
New Salem, In Search of Abraham Lincoln
Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain
Chicago’s Union Stockyards Gate

And associated articles

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!
The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them
Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!
The Friendship of Robert G. Ingersoll and Walt Whitman

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh

Amy on a road trip to Death Valley, 2009

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

I’m planning a cross-country road trip before I leave the US for Scotland and grad school. I’ll be traveling across the northern half of the United States, through Indian country and then Peoria, Springfield, & Chicago. I’ll spread this itinerary over a few more days if I can, & would love to hear your suggestions for more interesting historical and cultural sites to visit along this general route. I’ll be writing for Ordinary Philosophy all the while about what I see and learn.

I’m doing this all on the cheap AND I love to meet new people. If you have friends or family along this route that would be willing to host an itinerant writer and indie scholar, I would be grateful for your introduction! In thanks, I’ll write a dedicated piece on any subject of my kind hosts’ choice for O.P.

Here’s my itinerary thus far:

Days 1-4: Spokane, WA (family)
Day 5, 6, & 7: Yellowstone
Day 8: Little Bighorn National Monument
Day 9: Standing Rock
Day 10: Fort Yates – Sitting Bull sites
Day 11: Black Hills National Forest: Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Elk Peak
Day 12: Wounded Knee Memorial, Fort Robinson – Crazy Horse sites
Day 13 – 14: Peoria, IL
Day 15: Springfield, IL
Days 16 – 18: Chicago
Day 19: fly to Edinburgh!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!