Armour Meat Packing Plant
Located in East St Louis, IL
Photo © 2009 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Armour Meat Packing Plant History
The Chicago-based Armour & Company was a meatpacking business founded by the Armour brothers in 1867. The company revolutionized the industry by building large plants near railroad tracks, and thus expedited the delivery process at a time when every hour counted, as there was little refrigeration technology available. In the early 1900s, the company expanded its Chicago operations by building a plant near the National City Stock Yards on the outskirts of East St. Louis. The Armour Meat Packing Plant was opened in 1903, and was made up of several buildings connected by rail that served various purposes, such as animal runs, cold storage, waste disposal and power generation. The process even generated tourism, as visitors would come to watch the assembly line in action; even Henry Ford accredited his car assembly line methods to be based on the meat packing industry.
Cattle were brought off the trains in the rear of the building and entered a cattle run that was built on an incline, where they would eventually reach the top floor of the main building. They were slaughtered there and attached to an overhead conveyor system by their hind legs. As the carcasses were carried through the building, the meat was cut out and sent to various rooms for specialized processing. Finally, the finished cuts were packaged up and loaded onto refrigerated rail cars.
Before cities had power grids, large scale operations like the Armour facility needed their own power plant. The generating station here was fitted with two 210-foot tall smokestacks, which were the tallest structures in the East St. Louis area for decades. The refrigeration machinery was also housed in this area, powered by the steam from the generating station boilers. The main refrigeration engine was a massive De La Vergne steam engine which boasted a flywheel 30 feet in diameter. Built by the Frick Company, the main engine produced up to 350 tons of cooling capacity at 60 RPM; the steel shortage in World War II sent this mammoth engine to be used elsewhere, however smaller De La Vergne steam engines provided backup cooling and were left in place. Once municipal power was hooked into the plant, the steam engines were no longer needed, but being so large and heavy they were simply left unused.
The plant employed more than 4,500 people in its heyday, but after the Great Depression crippled the economy the meat industry declined. Prepared meals were changing the business model, and refrigerated trucks replaced the rail cars that were once to vital to the operation. Most meat packing industries moved to more rural locations where they could be closer to the cattle, invest in cheaper land, and be able to deliver their products with the new U.S. Interstate Highway system. Labor unions had also removed many of the unskilled, low paying workers that the plant heavily depended on. The aging factory soon became a burden to the company, and was closed in 1959. Unpaid property taxes moved the land under East St. Louis ownership, and despite incentives to sell the plant to another company, it was simply too large and outdated to turn any kind of profit. Other meat packing companies in the area followed suit, such as Swift closing in 1967, and the Brooklyn Packing Co. (later Hunter Packing) shutting down in 1982. Eventually, National City had become a ghost town, and the stock yards were closed after a massive fire in 1997. The 50 residents of National City were relocated and the town was dissolved.
The plant stood abandoned for 57 years until it was finally demolished in 2016; a controlled implosion using 475 sticks of dynamite brought down the iconic smoke stacks (video here). For more history, check out this great writeup on Sometimes Interesting.