Union Stockyard Gate
Exchange and Peoria

Union Stockyard Gate

2003 NB

Today you can stand here at the Union Stockyard Gate, the passage for thousands of workers and millions of hogs, and do what was once unthinkable; you can inhale deeply through your nose and not double over in fits of nausea. This was arguably the most odiferous spot on the planet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the smells of the hogs and their remains assaulted the nostrils. Now that the site is an industrial yard with just one meat packing plant and acres of non-food-related manufacturing, the smell is gone, though the area's storied bleakness remains.

Opened on Christmas Day of 1865, the Union Stockyards grew to over two thousand hog pens for 75,000 hogs in the nineteenth century, ensuring Chicago's status as "hog butcher of the world." They came to embody the grim efficiency of capitalism—hogs were dismembered so quickly and completely (190,000 of them on one record day) that hog honcho Philip Armour remarked, “Nothing was left but the squeal.” Henry Ford would later tour the yards and get the idea of an assembly line for his Model T.

The horrors within this gate were seared into the minds of the public and the annals of literature in Upton Sinclair's timeless novel The Jungle. In 1904, Sinclair received an advance of $500 to tour the Stockyards and produce a work about the plight of immigrant workers in America. His story centered on the struggles of one immigrant family to make ends meet and assimilate, but as he told their tale, he recorded some of the most horrific description in American literature based on what he had seen here at the Stockyards. Most unforgettable, perhaps, was the incident of a man falling into a vat of lard and being processed.

When The Jungle was published in 1905, the outrages it incited were over sanitation, not labor conditions, as Sinclair hoped. President Theodore Roosevelt was so horrified by what he read that he dispatched a team of investigators to Chicago, who confirmed the accuracy of Sinclair's account. Soon the Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection of 1906 sailed through Congress. Sinclair famously said that he had aimed for the public's heart but instead hit its stomach.

The Union Stockyards declined in the mid-twentieth century, and closed in 1971. At that time, farther north, the Sears Tower was ascending and would soon assume the role of emblem of the city's identity--a role this gate had filled for so long. Thirty years later, in his landmark book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser embarked on his own tour of the nation's meatpacking plants and found conditions to be alarmingly unsafe and the meat unsanitary. -NB

From The Jungle:
There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shovelled into carts, and the man who did the shovelling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.

-More on the Union Stockyards from the Chicago Landmarks Commission and PBS' "Chicago: City of the Century" (scroll halfway down)
-Christopher Hitchens on Sinclair and capitalism in the Atlantic Monthly
-Essay by and interview with Eric Schlosser in the Atlantic Monthly


© Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma