Research, Education, Links and Opinion

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The River Valley Playground
The Sioux City Stockyards

I sat and contemplated the solitude and stillness of this tenanted mound; and beheld from its top the windings infinite of the Missouri, its thousand hills and domes of green vanishing into blue in the distance—“ George Catlin, artist and adventurer, 1832.

About a half a mile from the mouth of the Floyd River (now a dry canal lined with concrete), Sergeant Floyd’s grave site gave vision to an artist and poet who, according to Sioux City: A Pictorial History, had stopped for a rest.  The Yellowstone Expedition, an expedition exploring the possibility of steamboat navigation on the river, stopped on its way south. (His drawing of the bluff is shown below, and is in the history book, available at the Sioux City Public Library.)


The Floyd River (named for the only member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who died), had carved its own bluffs east of Catlin’s view in current-day Sioux City. The bluffs are there to this day, and look out over some of the same windings Catlin saw northward along the river in 1832.

Below those bluffs, the Floyd River Valley 1 ultimately housed one of the largest stockyards and meat packing regions in the country, and the river became an important player in making it work.

As the packing industry grew, houses were built for the workers.  And from the bluffs above children played.  In fact, much of what will be written here comes from the experience of many of the boys looking down on the river; boys who explored the valley, packing plants and stockyards.  It was grimy down there.  But it wasn't dirty or messy for the boys, it was fun. For the Floyd River was a powerful tributary, often flooding.  In fact, its waters flushed the valley free of packing house waste, waste that rushed down the concrete canal on its way to the Missouri.

Before such practices were ended, a river-breaching tram skimmed the waste before it was dumped into the river. From the earliest days, and the endless activity of the place, the fat from the kill was sold to make soap, according to employees at Swift and Company.  Back in the day, Swift and Company dumped its waste like all the meat packers.  In fact, Swift and Company was first in line on the Floyd River, and to this day the pipes that poured muck into the canal are still visible.

It is safe to say that the river was a mess, but collecting the floating stuff had nothing to do with the environment. That tram, hidden from view in later years by a bridge on Interstate Highway 29, was a weird and puzzling apparatus that made money.  As the early industry died, the tram became lifeless.  It disappeared one day.

But for all its shortcomings, the area was wondrous. A cornucopia of adventure, where the "bluff stuff" of Sunday school classes, and steam-heated, squared-bricked boring grammar schools, became one with the explorers and wild buffalo hunts of old.

Simply, the bluffs overlooking the Floyd River Valley became a portal in time.  A place where the boys: Donnie, Dennis, Clyde, Richard, Ludwig, Ed, Bill and Bob, all dreamed of far-off places simply by walking down a hill (or, in some cases, up the street); for in Greenville, a suburb in the wondrous valley below, some of the boys lived along the river.

Upton Sinclair’s "jungle" had become a playground, and I still remember walking with Donnie near the “tanning shed—“ an odd-looking building sitting somewhere between Armour and Swift on an access road.

We walked past the place playing hooky, and stopped to stare at a burly man in a blood-soaked apron laboring over stacks of raw cow hides. I had been there before, but even after the old Armour plant went to rubble, the huge glass "drums" of blood, protected by wooden crates, still littered the area. But it was nothing compared to the man that day, who raced to the open door to chase us away when we stopped to watch for too long.

Of course, much was off limits down there.  Armour and Company stood like a fortress, for example, and the stories we heard of hungry men were haunting: how they waited outside the walls in the rain and cold (or snow), and especially during the depression, for hours.  And how the foremen came out from their citadel to select the chosen few for work.

We avoided these places, and often played around the stockyards, where the doomed animals awaited their death.

The "Yards" sprawled out over 80 acres, and the hogs (further down the river), were stacked one on top of the other in a parking ramp-like structure several stories high. Hogs had their own bridge over the Floyd River to the Armour and Company kill floor.  But the lights never went out in the Hog Hotel, and farmers unloaded hogs all night.  The trucks bringing hogs and cattle to market would stretch sometimes for more than a mile.  It was a tense, exciting time to wander down there.

There were walkways too, mostly over the cattle, where farmers and traders viewed cattle and made deals—and a lot of money selling and buying.  The catwalks were where they bartered, but we were always stopped before we could get to the animals. We could enter the Hog Hotel okay, but it wasn't much fun over there.  In the middle, between the Hog Hotel and the sprawling pens for cattle, a Livestock Exchange Building served the area.  It was a hub for everything, and it stayed open all night.

An internet search found little about the goings on there, but the smell of cow manure, stale cigars and money was ever present.  For there was a bank there too.  And the odd mixture of smells drifted endlessly through drafty marble hallways. The place housed a restaurant, always open, and a bar called the Cattleman’s Lounge.

Oh, and a bunch of boys wandering around.

In later years, the building became a self-contained ghost town as the packing plants closed, and the ranchers and farmers left.

Still, the Yards were once a profitable place, and Henry Anderson, a cattle buyer, seller and cousin, often talked about it. He passed away recently, but his favorite tale was about John F. Kennedy, and how he rode a mule outside the stables of the famed White Horse Mounted Patrol one day. Henry had a photo he'd show everybody who visited him in Morningside's Sunset Manor, a photo of Kennedy riding that Mule!

As the industry moved away from the Floyd River valley, the trucks disappeared, and the stockyards grew quiet and empty.  Today, even the Swift and Company building is gone. But before it was destroyed, a huge boiler called a Corliss stream engine was removed from the plant and, according to the Sioux City Journal,  is now housed in the Roundhouse of the Milwaukee Railroad Historic District.


The steam engine ran an ammonia compressor unit for the plant’s cooling system and sported a 20,000 ton flywheel to help get the job done. The stream engine, it was estimated, was installed in 1911.  This compressor is from an old Armour and Company packing plant in East St. Louis, and was seen at lightrainproductions.com.

Another picture, found on Wikipedia, could have been taken in Sioux City.  (It is published here in accordance with Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 legal code.)
None of us ever saw the Corliss stream engine though (it was impossible to get into the plant!), but if we could have found a way inside the Swift and Company building, we would have wandered around in there.

For years, even into young adulthood, many of us went to the bluffs to look into the valley below. In later years, the spot became a popular place to park.  It was a beautiful view.

One day, the rubble of the Armour and Company plant was hauled away, and all that remained was a huge smoke stack that once vented the power plant. Swift and Company remained for a while, its smoke stack illuminated in the night for years, but it too is now gone. For a brief while its glow brought back memories of a bar and restaurant buried in a building that never slept, cattle bawling in the night and the endless blocks of trucks waiting to unload the food that fed a nation. The entire world lived in the Floyd River Valley. It was magic.

We explored the ruins of Armour and Company too.  I remember trying to decipher the mysteries while hunting pigeons, often with Dennis, and later with Ed and his younger brother Bill (this is a photo from East St. Louis).


The last packing plant, John Morrell and Company, closed on April 20, 2010.  And that place was a source of adventure as well.   We use to hunt "hog worms" there when we went fishing.  Donnie and I would go to the back of the plant to renderings before heading to the Missouri to fish.  The "worms" came down a metal hopper.  But the most interesting part of the adventure came with the unsavory worms, a parasite.  They caused blindness (it was rumored) if hooked wrong.  They squirted stuff you couldn't get into your eyes.  

At Swift and Company a retail center flourished for a while, and a bowling alley was built on the third floor.  At Halloween the boy scouts had a haunted house, and a restaurant served food in an old meat locker.  It was interesting wandering the halls (the only time many of us made it into the Swift and Company building), but it wasn't the same. No longer a working packing plant, the dank atmosphere of slaughtered cattle just didn't work very well as a shopping center.

The ”KD Station" closed, and one of the last visual memories of adventure disappeared forever.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to the folks at Ancestry.com for the photo of the bank, to the folks at Answers.com and lightrainproductions.  You can see more beauty and grandeur of Armour and Company ruins on the lighttrainproductions site.

Footnote
 1 The Sioux City Journal has reported the valley was called "Hoeven."  We never called it      Hoeven Valley.
 
 

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