Slaughterhouses on the Schuylkill

In the mid-1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad consolidated its livestock operations in Philadelphia and built sprawling stockyards and a slaughterhouse on the Schuylkill River’s west bank. Now the site of Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, for nearly half a century, this area was Philadelphia’s version of Chicago’s Packingtown.

Philadelphia stockyards and abattoir illustrated in Hexamer's General Surveys of Philadelphia, Vol. 12 (1877).

Philadelphia stockyards and abattoir shortly after they were completed illustrated in Hexamer’s General Surveys of Philadelphia, Vol. 12 (1877).

Before the Pennsylvania Railroad complex opened, hogs, cattle, and sheep were held and sold at independent drove yards along rail lines leading into the city. Many of the yards were located in West Philadelphia near today’s University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University campuses.

Avenue Drove Yard

Avenue Drove Yard, near Lancaster Avenue, West Philadelphia (formerly Hestonville), c. 1867.

In 1885, about a decade after the Philadelphia stockyards were completed, Wilson Brothers & Co. published a catalogue documenting some of the architectural firm’s projects. The catalogue included a photograph of the abattoir and a detailed description of the stockyards facility.

Wilson Bros. and Co., Catalogue of Work Executed.

Wilson Bros. and Co., Catalogue of Work Executed.

The Abattoir and Stock-Yards of the Philadelphia Stock- Yard Company are situated on the west side of the Schuylkill River, north of Market Street, and occupy an area of 21 acres.

Cattle are discharged from care at the western side of the abattoir, being brought in on a branch from the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Another branch is devoted entirely to the delivery of sheep and hogs, serving the portion of the yard set apart for those animals. The whole enclosure is laid out in blocks and streets, the streets being carefully paved and drained, and well lighted at night with electric lights. The accommodations are as follows :

1. Cattle-pens to hold 7300 head.
2. Sheep-pens accommodating 10,000.
3. Hog-pens of about the same capacity.
4. Covered sheds for about 500 cows and calves.
5. The main office and exchange building.
6. Stables for storing and selling horses.
7. The abattoir.
8. Fat and refuse reducing department.

The cattle-pens, 172 in number, are frame structures, only partly covered in, so as to give ample ventilation, and at the same time afford proper protection from the weather. The floors are paved with granite blocks, and are well drained. All the pens are provided with food-racks and water-troughs. The sheep enclosures are two in number, each 350 x 130 feet, and placed at the northern end of the establishment. They are roofed over and paved ; each enclosure being divided into suitable compartments for wholesale or retail storage, and fodder-racks and water-troughs are provided where required.

The hog-pens are situated to the east of the sheep-pens. Provision is made everywhere to ensure the utmost cleanliness, but nowhere more particularly than here. The roof of the building is supported on light iron columns, and the pens are divided off with iron railings. The floors are laid with granite blocks grouted in cement, and they are formed with sides sloping to a central gutter, which descends in the other direction to a transverse drain. A stream of water flows constantly along the gutter and carries off all impurities.

The abattoir building is a substantial, permanent structure, having masonry foundations resting on timbers placed below low-water level. The main walls of the building above ground are brick. The main floor is supported throughout the interior of the building on cast-iron columns, a basement being formed below of 11 feet depth. Both the main floor and basement floor are covered with an asphalt pavement, which has sufficient slope to ensure perfect drainage. Two rows of wrought- iron columns carry the roof and divide the building into a central aisle of 50 feet width, and two side aisles of 30 feet each. The central aisle is covered with an arched roof springing 40 feet above the main floor. The side aisles have a height of 20 feet from floor to springing line of roof. Ample light and ventilation are had by large windows and louver ventilators in the roof.

The work of slaughtering the cattle is carried on entirely on the main floor, the portion devoted to this purpose being divided off into pens, the floors of which are laid with heavy pine planking carefully caulked. The cattle are admitted by doors in the end of the building, through which they pass into the middle aisle, and thence by gates into the slaughtering- pens, the centre space being fenced off from the sides by iron- pipe railings. Each pen is provided with the requisite apparatus for slaughtering, and with appliances for hanging up the carcasses and dressed meat. The blood and refuse are removed to that part of the building devoted to their utilization, and an ample supply of hot and cold water is provided. The building is warmed by steam. The abattoir has a capacity for killing and dressing 1200 head of cattle daily. The sheep are slaughtered in the basement at the west end of the building, where there is a row of raised pens paved with stone and enclosed by a wire fence with iron posts. In front of these pens is a stone table with a gutter running around it for catching the blood of the slaughtered animals. 3000 sheep can be slaughtered and dressed here daily. At the east end of the basement is the engine and boiler department, the grade of the ground on the exterior coming to the basement floor at that point. The engine is 60 horse-power,’ and the boilers 100 horse-power. In this part of the building is placed the plant for reducing the tallow, and for treating the blood and refuse from the animals. The latter possesses many interesting and novel features, and so complete are all the arrangements, that the business of the abattoir is carried on, practically in the heart of a large city, without being in any way offensive. Every part of the animals slaughtered is utilized, and none of the refuse is allowed to pass into the river. — Source: Wilson Brothers & Co. Catalogue of Work Executed. Philadelphia: Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company, 1885., pp. 55-56.

West Philadelphia rail yards, c. 1902, showing stockyards along the Schuylkill River in the lower right.

West Philadelphia rail yards, c. 1902, showing stockyards along the Schuylkill River in the lower right. Credit: Library of Congress.

The Pennsylvania Railroad operated its stockyards and abattoir in West Philadelphia until the late 1920s when construction began for 30th Street Station. The Pennsylvania Railroad in 1931 completed the relocation of its livestock facilities to Gray’s Ferry on the opposite side of the Schuylkill River where it remained until the 1960s.

Philadelphia Ledger, June 29, 1931.

Philadelphia Ledger, June 29, 1931.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad Philadelphia stockyards in 1998, downtown Philadelphia skyline in the background.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad Philadelphia stockyards in 1998, downtown Philadelphia skyline in the background.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad Philadelphia stockyards in 1998 shortly before they were demolished.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad Philadelphia stockyards in 1998 shortly before they were demolished.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein