Shipping Cattle to the Market by Rail

Have you ever watched those trail driving films and pondered what happened after the cattle were delivered to the railhead at Dodge City, Abilene, or Wichita? These trains were traveling 500 miles to Chicago and would have been grueling on the cattle, train crews and cowboys. How were they fed and watered along the way? Were they?

When one thinks of transporting millions of cattle hundreds of miles to a slaughter house and processing seems a little strange today but for more than a century that’s how it was done. The first rail car devoted to livestock with roof, slatted sides for air and a sliding door for access came during the 1860s.

Soon, the wood construction was exchanged by steel, food and water troughs were installed and pens were added to keep animals from crushing each other. A new stock car in 1880 was among the first practical designs to include amenities for watering and feeding the animals while in route.

In time laws were passed that required railroads to offload animals every 36 hours or so just so they could recuperate and stretch their legs. Livestock handlers could ride with their herds in cabooses.

The suffering in transit as a result of hunger, thirst and injury was thought to be inherent to shipping of cows over a great distance. Laws to prohibit this maltreatment weren’t active until the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 was enacted.

How about when they got ‘em to market? The granddaddy of all the stockyards was the Chicago Union Stock Yards. They were processing three million animals yearly by 1870 and in two decades the number increased to nine million. That included cattle, sheep, and hogs. When it came to butchering hogs nothing was wasted. It was said they processed everything on a pig except the squeal.