Day 3: Chicago explorations…

Exploring the city, cameras in hand, we just enjoyed the urban feel.

Though part of the mid-west, Chicago is an old industrial city similar in visual style to NYC. In fact, the skyscrapers we think of as so typically “New York,” were actually pioneered in Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had destroyed most of the city, so the skyline was re-defined from scratch in the 1880s, just as the “Chicago School” began designing buildings with steel-frame construction that used large areas of plate glass. Visionary architects emphasized the vertical possibilities of this new building method and the skyscraper was born.

We tried to soak up the visual cues, hoping to somehow store it mentally. The truth is, as much as we were excited, we were also a bit apprehensive about the next part of our journey into the “heartland.” Small town America would be a whole new world for us.

And Chicago was something of a “bridge” between east and west, not just for us via Route 66, but also historically in other important ways.


The Union Stockyards, a Chicago institution for years, connected the industrial society of the East with the cowboy culture of the West. Cattle were herded by cowboys from Texas and beyond across huge swathes of open country to railheads for shipment to Chicago where they would eventually be processed into meat for distribution across the eastern U.S. Today, the idea of millions of farm animals being transported hundreds of miles to a large city for slaughter and processing might seem bizarre. But back then, without highways and refrigerated trucking, rail was the only way to get the animals to market. And the network of railroads came together in Chicago.

Before the stockyards were constructed, tavern owners provided pastures for cattle herds waiting to be sold. These small stockyards were scattered throughout the city along the various rail lines, and the cows would have to be driven through crowded city streets to get to dispersed slaughterhouses. To alleviate this problem, the rail companies decided to create a centralized hub for meat processing. They purchased swampland and built the Union Stockyards on Chicago’s South Side in 1865.

“The Yards” held 2,300 livestock pens and the area was also home to hotels, saloons, restaurants, and merchants’ offices. In 1870, the facility was processing two million animals a year. At the turn of the century, it produced 82 percent of all meat consumed in the U.S.A. And by 1921, the Stockyards employed 40,000 people, and occupied more than a square mile of Chicago’s South Side. Chicago had become the meat-processing center of the world, and for generations, the Stockyards virtually defined Chicago.

The impact on the city – and on labor history – was monumental. There was constant strife between labor and management and ethnic conflict among strikers and strikebreakers. Only the butchers were considered skilled workers. Most jobs required no special knowledge, making the stockyards an attractive prospect to immigrants with few skills and limited English language ability. Irish and German immigrants were later joined by Bohemians, Poles, Slavs, African Americans and Mexicans.

Working conditions at “The Yards” were abhorrent. Laborers on the killing floors had to work amidst the stench and piercing shrieks of animals being slaughtered while standing on blood-soaked floors. They worked ten to twelve hours a day in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the summertime. Stockyard employers kept wages low and withheld benefits.

When workers attempted to organize, bosses played on ethnic and racial animosities to keep the unions out. However, after the Great Depression barriers between different ethnic groups and races began to break down, and union organizing was more successful. The Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, established in 1937, was finally able to get employers to the table, and eventually the labor negotiations at the Stockyards resulted in improvements that benefitted workers nationwide.

By mid-20th century, changes in technology led the meatpacking industry to decentralize, and the Stockyards faded with little fanfare. The last pen was closed in 1971 and was replaced by a nondescript industrial park. The only trace of “The Yards” is a giant limestone arch which marked its entrance.


The stockyards are gone, but echoes of Chicago’s past are everywhere, mixed in with eye-catching new monuments to hope and the future in a “shiny happy” city. The most notable of the “new” monuments is the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium park that reflects the city skyline in a distorted oversized snow-globe of polished metal. It has quickly become one of those “must see” attractions that define a city’s touristic profile. The Cloud Gate and Millennium Park sit on the site of an old rail yard at the northwest corner of Grant Park — another example of “new” replacing “old.”

Still, we are glad to see that the “old” stubbornly holds on here in Chicago, sometimes helped by preservation committees, sometimes helped by the combined interest of thousands of people like us — travelers on the lookout for history.

If only we had a bit more time to explore before picking up the trail of Route 66 in the morning…


More from Illinois:
NOTES FROM THE ROAD: Chicago, A First Taste… | Chicago, Having Fun With History
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: Portfolio: On the Road to Chicago | Portfolio: Chicago — The City | Portfolio: Chicago Gangster Fun
PRACTICAL MATTERS: Planning One Day in a City
REFLECTIONS & OTHER THINGS: Fragments from the Road to Chicago| Review: The Untouchables Gangster Tour, Chicago | Review: Tommy Gun’s Garage, Chicago

Back to Indiana | Complete Trip Log | Start at the Beginning

2 Responses to “Day 3: Chicago explorations…”

  1. CactusKiller says:

    Oui c’est une partie tres interessante de l’histoire de la ville … et aussi de l’histoire de la modernite … de la centralisation … mais meme ca ca passe !

  2. Blue Coyote says:

    yeah, i guess after centralization, it was globalization… and now the tide has turned to localization (dare i use the term “glocalization”) … sort of.

    am thinking of the food industry particularly… and produce more than meat… but we have that growing divide between the high-quality, locally produced, very expensive, and the relatively tasteless (and maybe genetically modified, who knows), mass produced, cheap…

    and anyway, none of it happens in a city anymore (urban real estate is just too valuable these days)…

    in fact, the disappearance of industry and so forth from the cities, combined with the high-value of the urban real estate has really changed not only the “facades” of the city’s structures, but also the composition of the city’s population as working class folks cannot afford urban rents…

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