On a bright, sun-lit morning in June 1865, John B. Sherman, a tall, broad-shouldered man distinctive in his long frock coat and knee-high boots emerged from his residence in the South Loop (at a time when there were still private homes in the downtown district), to mount his horse and travel southward through acres of cabbage patch fields, uneven dirt roads, and swampy marshes en route to the rural hinterland at 41st Street and Halsted—the Town of Lake, a remote, sparsely populated region southwest of the central city. “The land is worthless swamp!” snorted the downtown bankers who predicted rack and ruin for this upstart if he moved forward with his preposterous scheme, but Sherman had other ideas. He was soon to inaugurate the largest open-air “hotel” for animals in the Western World: the Chicago Union Stockyards and Transit Company of legend that helped establish the city’s essential working class character and the backbone of its economy.

In his younger years, former gold prospector John Sherman converted a vacant lot adjacent to the old Bull’s Head Tavern at the junction of Madison and Ogden Avenue into a “stockyard” to expedite the sale of a few hundred sheep, hogs, and cattle escorted by the “drovers” for direct sale to Chicago butchers. The year was 1848. The bustling young city approached twenty-nine thousand inhabitants, and the Bull’s Head was one of a half-dozen independent yards where livestock were sold, exchanged, transferred, and eventually slaughtered.

In the days of the Bull’s Head Tavern and the Willard Myrick Yards at Cottage Grove and 31st Street, leased and opened by Sherman, men on horseback accompanied their herds to Chicago from distances of one hundred miles or more. Through the dust of the trail and lake-effect shoreline squalls, and by means of whip and a dog, these hearty “drovers” directed the animals into the “butcher’s corral” for sale in the stockyards scattered across Chicago.

Escaping, panic-stricken steers often broke free from the corral in a mad bolt for freedom. They charged headlong into throngs of downtown pedestrians, resulting in chaos, pandemonium, and frightful injuries. Time was money, and money was lost chasing down the stock and transferring them from one yard to the next.

The disturbing and grisly images of animal slaughter conducted along the banks of the Chicago River in the early days of the industry presented a revolting tableau. In 1835, Archibald Clybourn, an old Chicago settler, butchered a bear in plain sight of everyone, hours before serving the animal as the evening’s fare in a gala banquet welcoming Senator Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, to Chicago. The spectacle sickened the children and jarred the sensibilities of faint-hearted Chicagoans who observed the killing grounds along the banks of the Chicago River before they moved further inland. Meat was a staple of their diet, but these early Chicagoans did not particularly care to observe the process by which supper arrived at their tables.

In this growing city where manufacturing and transportation had repositioned a sleepy frontier military garrison (Fort Dearborn) into a new and emerging metropolis of the mid-continent, the livestock and meat-packing industry had to be reined in and consolidated though the application of sound business principles and streamlined processing.

Amid the lowing of the white-faced Hereford cattle and the squeal of pigs as dollars and herds changed hands weekly, John Sherman, the ambitious, albeit mostly forgotten man in Chicago history, urged centralizing the independent yards into a remote location “somewhere out on the prairie beyond the line that would NEVER be reached by the expanding city.”

Sherman shrewdly recognized that the linkup and convergence of a consortium of railroads including the Michigan Central, the Burlington, the Michigan Southern, the Chicago & Northwestern, the Pittsburgh Fort Wayne & Chicago, the Chicago & Danville, the Rock Island, Chicago & Alton, and the Illinois Central in Chicago was key to the plan. He sensed that the railroad moguls would line up for the privilege of becoming his chief contributors in building this livestock colossus where the lambs went to slaughter in a city marching to global prominence. This much can be said of John B. Sherman: he was a brilliant and intuitive promoter. On the first of June 1865, ground was broken for the Union Stock Yards & Transit Company, a venture incorporated by the Illinois State Legislature four months earlier on February 13, 1865.

The yards stretched out in what is now the Southeast Side. The area had its own newspapers, hotel, and tourist office. (Photo from U.S. National Archives)

As he surveyed the scene at 41st and Halsted that long-ago afternoon, Sherman observed crews of workmen laying ties and rail at a feverish pace. These special tracks connected with every railroad line in Chicago. Contracts were signed. Handshakes and cigars followed. Within days, a thousand former Civil War veterans home from the southern battlefields were on the job building the largest open-air “hotel” for meat animals the world had ever seen. For one hundred six years (1865-1971) the “frontier supply post of the nation,” as one commentator adroitly described it in 1904, fed the nation in war and peace, depression and prosperity.

The railroad titans were of course eager to spare John Sherman any out-of-pocket costs in his personal crusade to become the first “King of the Chicago Yards.” They happily put up a million dollars in stock to acquire one hundred twenty acres of marshland owned by Chicago’s colorful and loquacious former mayor and wealthiest landowner, “Long John” Wentworth, to construct the holding pens on rectangular streets, the adjoining packing houses and the terminals, a brick hotel, the Union Stock Yards National Bank and the scale houses. In return the nine railroads counted on the untold fortunes awaiting them from this “shared monopoly” that within a few years would be worth millions to them.

The relentless push of the westward rails made it possible for the farmers and ranchers to ship in herds of a thousand or more from the sprawling pasturage of far-away Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and up into Canada. This was the promise Sherman made (and kept) to Chicago on December 25, 1865.

Christmas-time temperatures in Chicago hovered near zero. It was a bitterly, bitterly cold winter that year as war-weary Chicagoans celebrated the return of peace after surviving four long years of conflict, the loss of loved ones, and searing memories of the bloody skirmishes on southern battlefields. But now the joyous pre-war times had returned. The Wabash Avenue Skating Rink advertised “beautiful ice” and all-day skating on that long ago Christmas Day. At Washington Park, the Great Union Band entertained skaters with lively patriotic renditions and a promise that “The Great Attraction in the Evening Will Be the Calcium Light – The Same as Used to Light Central Park, New York!” Crosby’s Opera House, a gleaming palace of the arts until it burned down in one pyrrhic night in what history records as the Great Chicago Fire, advertised a performance of “La Dame Blanche.” Chicago in 1865, the emerging city of stockyards and Giuseppe Verdi.

The next day, a Tuesday, Sherman’s grand scheme to make Chicago the greatest livestock market in the world began in earnest; however, Chicago’s greatest contribution to the advancement of Western Civilization earned barely two inches of coverage in the morning Tribune. The newspaper laconically noted that “ … yesterday the roads and avenues leading to the yards were lined with people going to and fro. A host of eight hundred persons were present yesterday morning at the opening of business. The first load of livestock was purchased by Colonel John Hancock, and Worcester, Hough & Company turned the first load of hogs into the road to the packing town.”   

After that inauspicious beginning, Sherman’s visions of empire unfolded quickly. The “Big Four,” a consortium of rich and powerful men with New England roots and Puritan sensibilities, however, were destined to usurp Sherman’s power and glory, while Sherman ambled through the yards each morning on horseback to inspect operations and issue orders.

These skillful monopolists reaped a whirlwind on the backs of hogs, steers, cattle, and sheep to become the titans of packing town. Phillip Danforth Armour of Stockbridge, New Hampshire, made his first fortune in the California gold fields by founding Armour & Company in 1867. This resolute and devoutly pious New England Yankee introduced a fleet of refrigerated train cars to ship packaged meat long distances without spoilage. It revolutionized the industry. Before this time, the coming of warm summer weather meant a suspension of operations and four months of unemployment for packing-house workers. “I am just a butcher trying to go to Heaven,” Armour sermonized. “Through the wages I dispense and the provisions I supply, I give more people food than any man alive!” Modesty was never Armour’s virtue.

Gustavus Swift, of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, moved his packaging business from Milwaukee to Chicago in 1875 to become Armour’s most formidable competitor, while sharing a similar outlook on life. “The secret of all good things,” he observed, “is hard work and self-reliance.” Nelson Morris, cursed with a high squeaky voice, but blessed with shrewd business sense, went to work for John Sherman in 1854. After learning the ropes, he struck off on his own five years later. Morris boasted annual sales of eleven million dollars by 1873 and one hundred million by the time of his death in 1907. Milwaukeean John Cudahy, the fourth wheel of the blood-soaked meat-packing engine, founded the company town of Cudahy, Wisconsin, and were early investors in a fledgling football team Chicago Bears fans despise, the Green Bay Packers.   

The Chicago Union Stockyards and Packing Town directly west of the holding pens is where the Industrial Age began, a free-wheeling example of American capitalism and ingenuity at its finest. It inspired Henry Ford to invent the automotive assembly line at his River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, after witnessing the great dis-assembly of animals through the speed of Armour’s massive conveyor chain operation. Ford watched in awe as the carcasses passed from one man to the next in amazing precision, each performing a simple task in the butchering and packaging of animals. Nothing went to waste, except perhaps the lowing of a cow and the pig’s oink and squeal. In 1894, the bemused French novelist Paul Bourget described an efficient, albeit frightening process. “A pig that went to the abattoir at Chicago came out fifteen minutes later in the form of ham, sausages, hair, hair brushes, hair oil, glue, gelatin, insulin, fertilizer, pepsin, canned fruit, cosmetics, margarine, and binding for Bibles.”

Slaughter house operations manufactured and delivered estimated two thousand to three thousand by-products to consumers during its one hundred six years of existence. Meat packing houses, lard refineries, cooling plants, fertilizer and glue factories, railroad car repair sheds, chemistry labs, fertilizer shops, and related businesses spanned fourteen acres adjacent to the Yards and employed more people—upwards of seventy-five thousand during its peak years—than any other Chicago industry. Packing town had its own newspaper, a hotel and tourist office.

By 1931, it was estimated that three hundred thousand visitors including school children on class outings, passed through its gates to marvel at (or be sickened) by what they had witnessed in this course, utilitarian abattoir that fed standing armies, explorers, sailors at sea and the mass of ordinary Americans. High-stakes gambler “Big Jim” O’Leary, the wayward son of Catherine O’Leary of the Chicago Fire, the cow and the lantern fame, provided entertaining diversions to relieve the cowboys and packers of their hard-earned wages inside his plush saloon at 4183 S. Halsted. Crooked games of chance—faro, euchre, and poker—a hot Turkish bath, bowling, and female companionship awaited. “Big Jim” boasted: “I’ve been raided a thousand times, but I ain’t ever had a real raid!” Why? Inspector Clancy of the Stockyards Police Station had an understanding.

The Yards were a service organization and a vast public market where farmers and cattlemen from across the nation sold their animals on a competitive basis to commission men (the middle men in the buying and selling of the animals) representing the meat-packing firms, eastern shippers, local butchers, and competing stockyards from around the country.

The Union Stockyards and Transit Company provided unloading docks adjacent to the railways; pens, feed, water, and counting and weighing devices for the drover accompanying the herds. The company did not own, buy, sell, or enter into livestock transactions. Prices were determined by the law of supply and demand and the hours of operation extended from eight a.m. until two p.m. Stockyard cowboys were familiar sight to the Back of the Yards neighbors. As a young man seeking his calling, future Bridgeport native Richard J. Daley rode his mount in hot pursuit of escaping Texas longhorn steers. As mayor of Chicago from 1955-1976, he maintained tight control over a corral of a far different nature in City Hall.

A sense of excitement hung in the air, co-mingled with the noxious odors wafting across the greater South Side especially on those lazy, hot summer nights of long ago. Amid the nostalgia of that earlier time, Packing Town and the Yards was also a metaphor for hardship, deplorable work conditions, rising desperation when the paycheck failed to cover the rent and groceries, the muck and mire of “Bubbly Creek” (the Chicago River dump site for animal waste), and the ruthless labor practices. Muck-raking novelist and would-be poet Upton Sinclair caused a public uproar with the publication of “The Jungle,” his 1906 novel exposing the unsanitary conditions and unscrupulous practices of the packing town bosses. Sinclair gained first-hand insight by working undercover for a period of six months. The novel, framed around the miseries suffered by his fictional protagonist, Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkis, struck a powerful chord among consumers of meat products across the nation, and led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair acknowledged.

In the first of two horrific stockyards conflagrations, Fire Marshal James J. Horan and twenty men under his command perished on December 22, 1910 after the Nelson Morris Warehouse 7 exploded in flame and spread across Packing Town destroying buildings and the world famous Saddle & Sirloin Club. The next big one occurred in the scorching heat of May 19, 1934. It required the efforts of sixteen hundred firefighters to extinguish a wall of fire that might have engulfed the entire city if the prevailing winds had blown northward. The 1934 blaze is ranked second worst in city history. Although by that time “Big Jim” O’Leary had gone on to the big gambling den in the sky, his world-famous saloon continued to serve the thirsty cowboys until it burned to the ground in ’34, a sad irony for the O’Leary clan—no strangers to the fire menace.

The stockyards became a familiar part of the city’s landscape. Here is the gate featured on a 1910 postcard. (Image By Acmegraph Company)

The de-centralization of this billion-dollar industry spelled the end of a way of life for Chicago citizens. The decline began in the late nineteen forties when advances in inter-state trucking made it possible for breeders to sell to the packers directly and conduct the slaughter of animals where they were raised, eliminating the need for costly rail shipment to Chicago and an army of middle men. Armour and Swift vacated their plants in the fifties. The greater and lesser packinghouses scattered across the Corn Belt, including Sioux City, Kansas City, and Omaha, once the fierce rival of the Chicago Union Stockyards, also closed due to declining revenues and loss of business. 

Hog trading ended in Chicago in May 1970. On the last full day of operations, August 31, 1971, scavengers tore through the empty animal pens in search of souvenirs, rusted latches from the wooden gates mostly. No special ceremony of commemoration marked the closing, however. “We don’t want to conduct a wake,” explained a stockyards official. The bulldozers quickly moved in, even as the last head of cattle were moved out, in order for them to tear apart the holding pens. The “Stockyards Industrial Park,” a collection of 3-PL (logistic) warehouses lined by paved streets and park lawns occupy the site today. On most days, it is eerily quiet. That stretch of Halsted Street fronting the Park from 41st south to 47th resembles a ghost town.

John B. Sherman, the public-spirited entrepreneur from Duchess County, New York, is the forgotten man. He retired as president of the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company on January 17, 1900, declaring that he was “old and tired” and in need of rest. He passed away inside his Prairie Avenue mansion on February 25, 1902 from the “Grip,” or what we now call influenza.

The last visible reminder of the man, the Yards, and the era stands forlornly on Exchange Avenue a block west of Halsted, the former eastern entrance way. Embedded in the ceremonial limestone arch designed by architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root in 1879, is the bust of a bull’s head commemorating John B. Sherman’s prized animal appropriately named “Sherman.” The Burnham bust was conceived by the architect as a lasting homage to his old friend and father-in-law. Sherman’s only daughter was married to Daniel Burnham.

Richard Lindberg is the author of eighteen books and is a frequent lecturer on Chicago history subject matter. Among his presentations is a talk he gives on the history of the stockyards.

About the author

Richard Lindberg is a Chicago historian and the author of seventeen published books about the Windy City including “Chicago Yesterday and Today” and the award-winning, “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine.”

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