Self-Guided Tour: Relics of the Stock Yards
To go on a tour with a professional guide and lifelong Chicagoan, be sure to take a look at all of our Chicago tours.
For 106 years, the Chicago Union Stock Yards and adjacent meat packing plants were the most dominant businesses on Chicago’s South Side.
The Stock Yards complex was a veritable city unto itself — a 450-acre tract of land with 10,000 livestock pens with a capacity of tens of thousands of animals; hundreds of smoke-belching meat packing and rendering plants; a large post office dedicated primarily to Stock Yards workers; fully functional fire and police departments; an upscale hotel and world-renowned restaurant (the Stock Yard Inn); and a cavernous indoor stadium (the Chicago Amphitheatre), which hosted livestock shows, presidential nominating conventions and even the debut season of the Chicago Bulls (whose nickname was derived from the neighborhood’s most abundant commodity).
The Stock Yards District also was home to “Whiskey Row,” approximately 75 bars and taverns that were crammed into a one-mile stretch of South Ashland Ave.; more than 150 miles of railroad track that crisscrossed the neighborhood like steel mesh; and its own dedicated elevated transit line — the “Stock Yards Branch” — which featured stations that were named after meat industry names and businesses, such as Packers Ave., Exchange Ave., Swift and Armour.
While the Stock Yards withstood many challenges during its eleven-decade existence — several horrific fires, labor unrest, economic depressions, political pressure and ever-tightening food and safety regulations — the facility finally fell victim to a force it could not stop, the decentralization of the nation’s livestock and meat industries. Chicago’s meat packers simply closed shop and moved west to be closer to the supply of livestock. As a result, the Stock Yards were no longer needed as a marketing center. On July 31, 1971, the huge facility closed its famous front gate for the last time — it was the end of an era for one of Chicago’s largest and most important industries.
What’s there now?
Today, more than 50 years after its closing, there are very few remnants of the livestock or meat packing industries on Chicago’s South Side. The entire complex (livestock pens, packing plants, railroad shipping facilities) has been bulldozed — replaced by a massive development called “Stockyards Industrial Park,” an assortment of warehouses and manufacturing plants that are engaged in virtually every type of business other than meat packing. Nearby retailers no longer identify their shops with special neighborhood monikers (i.e. Stock Yards Hardware, the Yards Coffee Shop, etc.); and even that smell, that pungent, odoriferous, godawful smell that permeated every square inch of the South Side (and often the entire city), is gone.
Is anything left from Chicago’s glorious past as the livestock and meat packing capital of the world? Yes, but you have to know where to find it. That’s where we come in.
If you want to explore the Chicago Stock Yards on your own, then we recommend taking a look at the map below for a list of where to go and what to see. Much like the Chicago walking tours we offer, this itinerary takes you to historic and unique locations that could only come from a lifelong local Chicago native.
Duration: 1.5 Hours
- Best Days: Weds-Sun
- Best time to start: Morning or Midday
- Getting Here: Driving Recommended
- Stock Yards Gate | Exchange Ave. at Peoria St.
- Stanley’s Tavern | 4258 S. Ashland Ave.
- Bubbly Creek | South Branch of the Chicago River near Ashland Ave. to W. 38th St.