The Armour & Company meat packing plant in National City, Illinois is a window into a bygone era, a time capsule with late-19th century technology still on display. During its heyday the busy stock yards of East St. Louis were the largest in the world, and known around the U.S. as the “Hog Capital of the Nation.”
Advances in technology and labor disputes ultimately drove the meat packers out of National City. The obsolete Armour plant had become expensive to operate and was eventually shut down by the company in 1959.
Unused since Armour & Co. left nearly 55 years ago, the 110 year-old structure still sits in East St. Louis today.
Armour & Company
Founded by the Armour brothers in 1867, Chicago-based Armour & Company was a meatpacking corporation led by Philip Armour (left). A robber baron industrialist, Philip is also remembered for his contributions toward innovations in the meat industry.
In the 19th century the lack of refrigeration technology dictated the process for meat packing and distribution; without it, the meats needed to be consumed quickly or preserved with salt.
With time at a premium, Philip revolutionized meat processing by centralizing operations next to rail yards.
Several hundred miles to the South of Chicago, an industrial district just outside St. Louis was established in 1873. The East St. Louis National Stock Yards would employ the centralized delivery and distribution concept in the district via rail.
In 1907, East St. Louis’ National Stock Yards were incorporated as the National City Stock Yards. This allowed city officials to offer more favorable regulations and tax climes in an attempt to attract major industry.
The National City Stock Yards encompassed 650 acres and at its peak was capable of processing 30,000 cattle, 50,000 hogs, and 20,000 sheep daily.
Until World War II, National City’s stock yards were the largest horse and mule market in the world.
In the 19th century, meat processing was largely disorganized and inefficient. Fresh beef could only be shipped short distances before it would spoil.
Local butchers operated independently of the packing houses, which often were separate entities from the slaughter houses.
Given the many different layers of processing, access to fresh packaged meats was limited to select larger city centers. The lack of refrigeration required each major city to have its own stockyard, packing house, and distributor, increasing costs to the meat industry.
Before centralization, transport costs by rail were higher as the entire cow had to be transported rather than just the sale-able beef. At the time, more than half of a butchered cow was considered waste.
Refrigeration was still a nascent technology. Dairy farmers started using the first refrigerated railroad cars in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that commercial rail refrigeration became widespread.
Armour realized that by adopting the rail refrigeration techniques used by dairy farmers, he could preserve meat longer and extend the scope of each slaughterhouse, reducing the number of required facilities around the country.
Before long Armour & Company built a fleet of refrigerated boxcars, eventually totaling 12,000. The large-scale adoption of refrigeration via rail not only improved rural access to fresh meats, but also raised food quality standards nationwide.
Arguably the biggest contribution by Armour to the meat industry was the centralization of operations. Philip witnessed railroad operators solve their own transportation inefficiencies by building large rail yards and running rail service through a single location. By reducing depots and stations, rail operators had managed to lower their operational costs.
Philip Armour saw opportunity in the vastly inefficient meat system. He understood if the meat could be packed and processed in a single, centralized location, he could reduce transport expense and the overhead of operating slaughter facilities in every city.
Armour began centralizing his packing houses. By combining the packing with the slaughtering, overhead was reduced. Transport costs were slashed. Meat companies were no longer shipping entire cattle across the country; now they were shipping smaller packaged meats.
Going further, Armour also found ways to cut costs in labor. He “de-skilled” the workforce by separating the butcher role into numerous subroutines any unskilled laborer could follow. This move essentially turned labor into a commodity, lowering wages and making staffing an easier task for management.
The jobs were hard labor and not well-paid. The packinghouses were brutal, polluted, and dangerous places to work – but no experience was required and most didn’t require the ability to speak English. The jobs were popular with immigrants, who flocked to the stock yards of Chicago and National City looking for work.
Philip Armour also introduced the vertical integration concept to the meat industry. His centralized facility would lead live cattle, hogs, and sheep up a series of ramps to the top floor of the plant. There, they would be slaughtered. As the animals were cleaned and dressed the carcasses would work their way down successive floors, allowing gravity to carry them and drain blood.
Division of labor, mass production, continuous flow, and efficiency modeling concepts all have roots in the early packinghouses of the meat industry.
Incidentally Henry Ford would later adopt some of these principles for the automobile industry, and despite admitting as much in his autobiography, Ford is often incorrectly credited for several of Armour’s ideas.
The National City Armour Plant
The East St. Louis stockyard was a logical location for Armour when the company was looking to expand south from Chicago. Rail operators had already centralized distribution and the city itself was central to the established population of the United States at the time.
In 1903, Armour opened its doors to a state-of-the-art meat processing facility (map). Buildings connected to the rail system served various functions, from animal runs to waste storage and even power generation.
At the time the system was so revolutionary it generated tourism. Visitors traveled from around the world to watch the meatpacking facility’s “dis-assembly” line in action.
The top floor of the main building contained the beef slaughterhouse. The cattle would arrive off the train on the backside of the building and enter the cattle run, which rose gradually to the top floor traversing from south to north.
Once on the top floor the animals would be led through a narrow passage, where they would be slaughtered and then attached to a conveyer system by their hind legs.
As the cattle traveled back down through the plant, they were drained of blood, stripped of flesh, and cut into pieces.
From there the meat was sent to specialized rooms for processing based on content or cut. Finally, the meat was packed and loaded onto export boxcars on the opposite side.
Next to the main facility is the smaller Tankage building, where waste products with little to no value were sent after the meat was processed. There, the bones and hides of slaughtered animals were stored until disposed.
Wrapping around the smaller building was the sheep run, where ovine livestock would undergo a similar process.
Behind the main building were the power and refrigeration plants, recognizable by the large smokestacks on the roof. The Armour smokestack is 210 feet tall and for decades was the tallest structure in the East St. Louis area.
The refrigeration system was also cutting edge for its time. In an era before cities had power grids, local factories were responsible for their own power generation.
The De La Vergne steam engines of the Armour plant were enormous; the main engine which powered the refrigeration plant had a 30-foot flywheel.
The large De La Vergne installed at Armour for refrigeration was built by Frick and was nearly 60 feet long. Spinning at only 60 rpm, it could produce up to 350 tons of cooling capacity.
The main De La Vergne engine was supported by several smaller engines offering additional backup cooling sources; these would vary in size between 15 and 20 feet long with 9-foot flywheels.
There is speculation that a De La Vergne engine with a 40-foot flywheel and even larger boiler may have assisted with powering the plant – but if so, both were removed long ago.
When involvement in the Second World War created a steel shortage, the larger De La Vergne was likely removed and re-appropriated.
The plant itself would change over time as technologies improved. Eventually Armour’s National City location was converted to municipal power and no longer required the boilers and steam engines.
Early Labor Struggles
In the 19th century, disputes between workers and wealthy industrialists were common. The advent of assembly line production at the turn of the 20th century only further devalued the specialist and lowered wages.
Workers were commoditized; if they struck or fell ill, they were replaced. Uneducated immigrants proved to be easy targets for abuse in labor practices.
Armour understood this, and like many of his fellow industrialists he had a great fear of a unified labor force. He encouraged the hiring of diverse, non English-speaking workers as he viewed ethnic and racial tensions as a distraction from labor issues with management.
Armour knew if the different ethnic groups were fighting each other, they were less likely to fight him.
Philip Armour died in 1901, but the company would continue to follow the principles laid down by its founder. When workers put aside their differences to strike, the company imported black unskilled workers from poor southern states to compete with the immigrant workforce. The influx of new labor was meant to serve as a strike-breaking force and offer Armour & Company insurance against work stoppages.
The fighting over jobs and poor working conditions in East St. Louis and National City would continue until the 1950s. However by this time, nearly every major industry in town had been unionized. Benefits, wages, and working conditions had improved considerably since the turn of the century.
The unions had improved working conditions, but incidentally they also helped drive business out of the area. This – along with improvements in technology – gave industry multiple reasons to leave.
National City’s Meatpacking Decline
From 1930 to 1958, the meat industry experienced a period of stagnation. The Great Depression had crippled the United States economy in the 1930s, and the meat industry languished in kind.
In addition to the headwinds from increasing costs, meatpackers were faced with new conditions to regulate from the international meat trade.
The industry would find a brief reprieve during the Second World War, when operations at Armour’s National City plant would reach a zenith producing rations for the troops.
At its peak, the Armour plant employed more than 4,500 people and was second in size only to the Chicago operation.
After the war, the meat industry evolved further with the emergence of supermarkets and processed meats.
Changing trends in consumption and the advent of prepared meals resulted in a different model of business to maximize profits. New technologies had made the plant obsolete and thus more expensive to operate.
Grid power made the large steam engines redundant. Refrigerated trucks removed the need for centralized urban rail centers.
The interstate highway system made it possible – and cheaper – for meat companies to move closer to livestock where labor and land were less expensive.
Organized unions meant labor was no longer cheap. The area was rife with violent strikes and work stoppages. Since the plants ran on cheap, unskilled labor, they shut down when labor costs increased.
The companies moved to more rural locations and continued to use cheap, unskilled labor elsewhere. Eventually the large Armour plant was no longer efficient or profitable.
By the late 1950s the plant had become a burden to Armour & Company; it was outdated and no longer fit the mold of meat processing at the time. In 1959 the plant was closed, and in lieu of unpaid taxes the property was “donated” to the city of East St. Louis.
The city might have proclaimed itself to be the “Hog Capital of the Nation,” but it did not know how to run a meatpacking facility. Desperate to attract new business, the city offered incentives on the unoccupied property – including waiving tax liens – but the outdated infrastructure and dilapidated buildings were too much of an obstacle to overcome.
The National Stock Yards were emptying as businesses left town. Swift, the other major meatpacking operation in the area, closed its doors in 1967. Regional brand Brooklyn Packing Company (later known as Hunter Packing) lasted until 1982.
Over time squatters and vandals would leave their marks on the buildings; nature would do the rest. In the mid-1980s, a fire in the plant damaged the roof and has accelerated the structural decomposition.
With no major industry left to support, National City had become a ghost town. The stock yards would remain open until a devastating fire would finally close them in 1997. The estimated 50 residents left in National City were relocated and the city was dissolved.
The area has seen little re-development since then. Several businesses operate in the former National City, but major industry left long ago.
Efforts have been made to redevelop the Armour property, but the additional cost of demolition and waste disposal has made any action economically unfeasible.
Ironically it’s the worst of the early concepts pioneered by Philip Armour that are still used today. Packinghouses remain a dangerous and unpleasant place to work.
Meat processing continues to utilize low paid, unskilled immigrant workers on assembly lines, only today it is usually done in non-union states. However it is those conditions which have helped make fresh meat accessible and affordable to many around the world.
The Armour Meat Packing Plant remains in the former National City district of East St. Louis (map). When man failed to redevelop the site, nature took over. Trees have rooted on the roof while new vegetation protrudes through the broken windows.
The most arresting feature of the complex today is the refrigeration plant, which still has some of the original machinery on display. Obsolete and far too large to be removed, the steam engines and boilers were left behind. Now they are forever entombed in a plant which has become a time capsule of 19th century technology.
The southern end of the power plant has a large depression in the floor, likely indicating the location of the other giant flywheel and steam engine. The plant was exposed to the elements decades ago when the skylights were broken.
Scavenging scrappers removed the floor panels, exposing the sub-floor and creating for a dangerous urban explore today. Until recently quite a few of the original boilers were still standing by the smokestack; unfortunately the intervening years have seen some boilers destroyed for scrap.
There is a rumored “caretaker” of the property, however reports are conflicting on whether the person is an official guard or a scrapper who has laid claim to the structure.
Update #1 (04/16/2016): The Armour Packing plant’s main building has been demolished. On April 16th, 2016, it was imploded. Watch the video here.
Update #2 (10/06/2016): As of today the rest of the facility is being flattened and Armour is no more. A railroad company has purchased it with plans to expand its operations yard. (courtesy Christian Smith)
Update #3 (10/11/2017): We have learned the former Armour plant’s Frick/De La Vergne steam engine and flywheel were rescued by the American Farm Heritage Museum in Greenville, Illinois, about 45 miles east of St. Louis, back in August of 2016. (courtesy John via Mitch)
The Armour plant is a rarity; very few closed factories with machinery left behind last 50 years. An economically depressed area has helped preserve the structure. The rest of the former National City is mostly vacant, the occasional outlines of a foundation visible through the overgrowth.
New business has slowly moved to the area as it has been re-developed. A golf course and motorsports park occupy land to the east, but the majority of the former National City has been reclaimed by nature.
National City’s boom was a circumstance of the era, a then-central location for meat processing during a time that required centralization. Ultimately advances in distribution and refrigeration – along with the threat of organized labor – were enough to discourage further meat production in National City.