The old Union Stock Yards and the meatpacking district

Something that has always intrigued me about the US is the ‘meatpackers’ and Chicago is the capital of their industry. So today it is a visit to the old Union Stock Yards and the meatpacking district. On the way is a coffee in Johny’s Diner.

The railway companies bought this swampland in 1865 and turned it into a central processing area for cattle and pigs, making Chicago ‘the hog capital of the world’. At its peak in 1924 more meat was processed here than anywhere else in the world. Before the stockyards were built, cattle was driven up here and pastured on land owned by numerous taverns before they were sold. The railroads transformed the industry with properly built pens constructed along the converging tracks. The Civil War created a huge demand, with the US Government requiring 1.5 million hogs and 140,000 head of cattle to feed the troups over the butchering season of 1864/5. Eventually the stockyards had 2,300 separate pens with enough room to hold 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle and 22,000 sheep at any one time. Saloons, offices, restaurants and hotels grew up around them. In 1921, the area employed 40,000 workers including meatpackers who had yards in amongst the tracks and the holdings.

At one time 500,000 US gallons of water from the Chicago River was pumped into the stockyards each day, to clear out the waste from the animals. This drained back into a creek of the river, named Bubbly Creek due to the gaseous products of decomposition. The river was so badly polluted that the city authorities undertook a major engineering project to change the flow of the river away from the centre of town and the lake and through a man-made channel that led to the Mississippi. The Yards eventually closed in 1971 after years of decline.

Today the area is changing. It still feels seedy and run down with its boarded warehouses and crusty, chains strangling bored doors, its broken windows and faded, painted brickwork advertising forgotten products and innovations.

But now traditional meat-processing businesses and cold meat lockers mix it up with neon signs, art galleries, trendy restaurants and renovated offices and apartments.

The area has evolved into a hip place in a cosmopolitan Chicago.

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