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.

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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.