Traveling the Chicago Union Stockyards

Journey back in time to the Chicago Union Stockyards at the turn of the century.

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by Farm Collector archive

Sometimes when I am out exploring, I come across an old cemetery. I find myself walking among the graves, reading the headstones with the inlaid colored glass and marbles and wondering about the people there. It was on one of these afternoon trips west of Alva that I came across the Lookout Cemetery and William Schwartz.

William T. Schwartz was born on Dec. 27, 1837, and passed away Feb. 10, 1910. As I stood in front of his headstone, I found myself wondering about his life. Did he experience any historic Civil War battles? Maybe he got to see the Great American Desert before barbed wire. Did he ride up the trail on a cattle drive from Texas? I wondered if maybe he sat on a high bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi River or maybe the Missouri River and watched the big paddle wheel steamers slowly moving people and goods. Did he ever stop and watch the trains bringing livestock into Chicago (or Porkopolis, as Cincinnati – once the largest pork-producing city in the world – was once known)?

Did he watch the big steam engines crossing the prairie or lay eyes on the massive herds of buffalo? Maybe he came across the ocean on a big steamer and landed at Ellis Island, making his way west in time to see the big steam traction engines turning under virgin prairie to bring civilization to the Wild West. As my mind pondered all the possibilities, it took a right turn and I started to wonder if Mr. Schwartz were alive now, what things his eyes would see that he had never seen. What would he think about tractors, combines, cars, television, radio, and how about cell phones and airplanes?

There are those in my life who think I am a prime candidate for counseling, and some of you readers may be leaning toward me and the counseling gig right now, but trust me: I am firing on all cylinders.

There are times that I ask the same questions about my life. I desperately long for things of the past that I never had the opportunity to experience, and then I think about what the future will look like. I start to take stake in the many things I have had the opportunity to experience in my lifetime that future generations will not have. I often wonder if, down the road, there will be livestock sale barns. Will there be farm auctions where you can listen to the call of a good auctioneer, or will they all be conducted over the internet? How about passenger trains, barber shops, and drive-in movies? That’s the reason I always do my best to stop and experience something that we could be visiting about in the future. We are all guilty of gazing past what is right at the end of our nose.

Back down the line

In this visit, we are going to one of the places I would most definitely stop at if I could ever find a time machine: Chicago, Hog Butcher to the World. I do not normally buy reprints of picture postcards or vintage photographs, but sometimes I like the subject matter so much that I give in and buy it regardless. I recently bought two reprints and thought I would share them with you.

Based on the trucks and the one car shown in the first picture, I would say it was taken in the late 1930’s or early ’40s. One of you readers will be able to tell me the year and makes of the vehicles, I am sure. I have often told anybody who’ll listen that I believe the greatest influence on what America looks like today is transportation. This picture, in my opinion, was taken at a time when the train was giving way to the truck, which, as the years went by, spelled the end of the big stockyards.

I noticed the four towers right away. At first glance I thought they were probably water towers, but the one on the right seems to have windows. I really could not come up with any intelligent answer as to what it was. It looks to be pretty decorative, maybe it was a tower to direct traffic, either train or truck. It would be interesting to know; maybe one of you readers has an idea.

The tower to the left looks like it is a water tower, and the two next to each other I think are definitely silage or feed towers. On the top of them you can make out a pyramid type thing that I am going to guess is part of the elevator to fill them. Lower on the right side you can make out what looks like pipes coming out, I would guess these were to unload them.

Stockyards in detail

I have quite a few pictures and old postcards of the Chicago Stockyards and what is interesting to me is that I cannot make out a big lane down the middle in any of them. I have one picture postcard of hogs being unloaded off a train and it looks like it is a wide alley, so maybe they adapted part of this alley to unload the trucks. I would think that the unloading chutes for the trucks were built specifically for them, but I can’t be 100 percent sure. What is really interesting is if you examine the alley at the top of the picture, you can see part of the city of Chicago and the street that comes into the alley. It is kind of blurry but you can make it out.

At the bottom of the picture you can see the elevated train platform. You can even make out the name of that particular stop – Exchange (the sign is to the right of the covered area). When I enlarge the picture, I can see advertising signs hanging up under the roof. I can make out one for Clorox and V8, and one that I think says South Smoke Lines. Back to the alley, I wonder if the alley continued underneath that platform or if the trucks went out toward the top of the picture.

The train cars to the right of the alley puzzle me. It doesn’t look like the tracks run toward the top of the picture and there doesn’t look to be any way to load or unload livestock, so I wonder what they were doing there. They had to come in from underneath the elevated train platform, but they do not seem to serve any purpose. The other thing that caught my attention is they do not look to be livestock cars, but boxcars. Maybe they were bringing in sacked feed or something; it would be neat to know what they were doing there.

The trucks in the picture are pretty cool. They are all single rear axles, which today would be considered small, but back then they were probably top of the line. There is one bobtail grain truck with stock racks on it. When you study the angle that they are lined up at, and the direction the empty one seems to be pulling out at, maybe they did come in from the bottom and leave toward the top. There doesn’t seem to be enough room for them to turn around but you never can tell. If you look close, you can see trucks in between what I think are the concrete overpasses. I wonder if they are unloaded at other commission companies’ pens.

The vastness of the Chicago Stockyards and the surrounding packing town always amazes me. When you look at the overall size and the network of second-story platforms they used to move cattle around, it is pretty impressive. I would love to know how many people were employed there to make that place operate on a daily basis.

Considering the people

It is hard to say what the people you see in the picture are doing. There is a guy in the alley by a big cart. That cart looks like it has a smokestack coming up from the front. I wonder if this has to do with the way it was moved; it looks too big to move under human power.

The guy standing next to it is doing something with a pole in his hand. He looks to be either dumping or pushing something down into the cart. Maybe he was on trash patrol. There is another man in the pen to his left; maybe that was his partner. I looked that cart over quite a bit; it really has me bamboozled.

If you look down the line of train cars, you will see a car. In front of it is a line of carts that look to be hooked together. They are not the same kind of cart as the bigger one, but I wondered the same thing with them: What was their purpose and how were they moved around?

The last two people who stuck out to me are at the bottom, by the boxcars. One is leaning against the boxcar, maybe taking a break in the shade. The other fellow is walking toward the bottom of the picture. When you look close, you can make out two people in the alleys on horseback; maybe that is how the carts were moved: by horses.

Truck traffic jam

The second picture is a close-up of trucks unloading. The first thing I thought was interesting was the brick street. They seem to have used bricks quite a bit back then. The Oklahoma National Stockyards in the Stockyard City district of Oklahoma City still has the brick all over, even in the pens and alley ways. Wouldn’t laying those bricks be a time-consuming job?

There seems to be a traffic jam going on with all those trucks: I count four semi-trucks and one bobtail all trying to maneuver in that alley. I am not knowledgeable enough to know make, model and year of the trucks, but I bet someone reading this can help me out.

I can make out the signs on the doors on three of the trucks. The one in the foreground says Louis Bush. The mirror blocks part of the first name, but it looks like this truck was out of Havana, Illinois. When I googled Havana, I found it was just under 200 miles from Chicago. What a trip that would be in that old truck, and with no major interstates! Those old truck drivers were as tough as nails.

The next truck says O.B. Bilderback on the door (it may be Q.B. but I think it’s O.B.). That trucking company is out of Carthage and Augusta, Illinois. Both of those cities are over 250 miles away from Chicago. I don’t know if they were hauling cattle out of that area or someplace closer but it would be quite a trip in those old trucks. They probably didn’t travel over 45mph and would they even have power steering or air brakes back then?

The third truck is a bit harder to read: It says either E.E. or F.E. Dean and I cannot make out the name of the town. I have to tip my hat to those drivers. It looks like the third truck is backing up. The driver has the door open and he is looking down and back. The guy standing next to the truck is looking down at something. I wonder if they were experiencing trouble, or was the driver just trying to get a better look? I wonder if these trucks were driven by tandem drivers?

The only other person I can make out is the guy standing at the bottom. I think he may be the driver of the first truck, as the cab is empty. I wonder what he is gazing at. If you look at the truck that is pulling in, it is the only cab over there. Look close at the front right of the trailer; you will see a double door and a little ramp that looks like it folds down. I am going to assume that was used to load and unload, but I have never seen a facility that would accommodate a trailer like that.

Look at the right side, on the upper level, above where they are loading or unloading, and notice how stout the stockyards is built. Look at the size of those wooden pillars and the wooden planks making up the floor. It is amazing to me how well-built things were back then. The last thing of note is the sign in between the first two trucks backing up. You can see it attached to the second story there. I would love to know what the sign says. I tried to zoom in and clear it up, but I could not make it out. I wondered if it was the commission company’s name.

Before we depart let me say thank you to all the people who wrote and emailed me about the picture postcards of wheat harvest in Kansas (Farm Collector, July 2020). I learned a tremendous amount from you guys and I appreciate it. This being the November issue, we are coming up on my favorite American holiday, Veterans Day. I would like to personally tip my cap and say thank you to every one of you who have served our country to allow me to roam freely! Just know I appreciate it greatly. I also would like to say we have plenty to be thankful for so have a great Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoyed getting together as much as I have and I look forward to seeing you again. Until our next visit, remember to take time out of your busy schedule and enjoy the view from the backroads. FC

Anthony Lovelace lives in Alva, Oklahoma. He enjoys traveling and collects anything old, has a very small cow herd, and writes. Write him at P.O. Box 174, Alva, OK 73717; email:

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