In 1848, the area that is now Chicago was a crossroads for shipping livestock between the Western half of the United States and the more populated areas in the East. Smaller stockyards, including Cottage Grove and Lake Shore Yards, were scattered thought the area. As railroads expanded westward, Chicago needed to become larger and more centralized. The blockade of the Mississippi River during the Civil war and the arrival of larger numbers meatpackers and more livestock also contributed to this.
In 1864, nine railroad companies acquired a 320 acre area in the southwest of Chicago with plans to build a new centralized stockyard that would act as a commercial connection between the East and the West. Located within the boundaries of Pershing Ave, Halsted St, 47th St, and Ashland Ave, the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company opened on December 25, 1865. The stockyard had grown to 475 acres by 1900. A number of major meatpacking companies built their operations in the areas near the Stockyard, including Armour, Swift, Morris and Hammond. These companies produced 82% of the meat eaten in the country.
Technological breakthroughs such as the invention of an ice cooled unit in 1872 and the invention of the first refrigerated railroad car in 1882 revolutionized the industry. No longer restricted to the winter months, meatpacking could be done year round and processed meat could be shipped to eastern markets. Chicago meatpackers also pioneered assembly line productions decades before Henry Ford.
Union Stock Yards employees worked extended hours in extreme temperatures and poor conditions. Wages were low and benefits were nonexistent because of the steady stream of immigrant workers. Workers attempted to unionize and go on strike in an attempt to better their working conditions, but early efforts were unsuccessful due to the various groups’ failure to organize cohesively with each other.
The Great Depression helped to dissolve barriers between ethnic groups and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee was established in 1937 and helped to unify laborers and improve working conditions.
After WWII, the federal highway system grew rapidly and coupled with the development of the refrigerated truck, packing houses were able to be moved out of expensive urban areas. Other factors including competition within the meatpacking business, urban growth and the fact that meatpackers began doing business more directly with farmers contributed to the stockyards decline.
In 1955, Wilson and Company ceased their operation in Chicago and were followed by the rest of the major companies. Chicago’s Union Stock Yards officially closed on July 31, 1971. The area is now an industrial park and home to a number of factories. None of the original structures remain, save the large limestone arch that marked the entrance to the stockyards.
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