Chicago’s River Of Rotten Meat

“Many people would no more think of entering journalism than the sewage business – which at least does us all some good.” —Stephen Fry

In a Nutshell

The Chicago River was once so polluted with blood and guts from the meatpacking industry that the water bubbled with the gases of decomposition.

The Whole Bushel

Toward the end of the Civil War, Chicago became known as one of the foremost meatpacking districts in the entire world. It was a grimy, savage business, perhaps best summarized in Upton Sinclair’s expose The Jungle, which brought public attention to the working conditions at the meat factories, where workers often lost fingers and hacked up tubercular phlegm as they slaughtered hogs.

While nearly all of the animals butchered were used, leftovers like bones, blood, and entrails were often dumped into the nearby Chicago River. There was so much rotten flesh in the water that gases of decomposition such as methane and hydrogen sulfide rose to the top, making the water bubble. Sinclair makes mention of Bubbly Creek in The Jungle, stating: “Bubbly Creek is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the Union Stock Yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths.”

Bubbly Creek was so fouled with lard and gas that it occasionally burst into flame. Today, Chicago’s meatpacking industry is gone, but the South Fork of the Chicago River is nowhere you’d want to swim. Sewage is directed into this area of the river, where it reeks and continues to bubble.

Show Me The Proof

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry
Meatpacking: Encyclopedia of Chicago
Flushing out Bubbly Creek

  • inconspicuous detective

    sounds like the basis for an incredible horror flick.

  • Andrew Park

    I lived on Chicago for four years, and let me to tell your that even the tour guides at the boat tours at the Chicago River warn you not to touch it. Perhaps the only time the river is beautiful is at night, when the city is lit, and the light reflects off the river, and during St, Patrick’s Day, when the river is literally dyed green. Also during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the river was literally on fire because of the massive amounts of flammable waste which had been dumped into the river.

  • diablo135

    As a life long Chicagoan, i confirm this article. While the river is much much better these days, you still don’t wanna fish in it, especially with all the boat traffic.

  • guest

    The South branch was worse than the rest. As late as the nineties it still very literally bubbled with the gases of decomposition, but only occasionally. It mostly only stank when one was directly over it.
    I hear they have been pumping air down there like a fish tank in order to oxygenate the water and promote the decomposition of the several feet of congealed blood that is down there.

  • Colonel_Dax

    It isn’t just blood in the South Branch. Any number of the people who have annoyed the Outfit have gone to their final reward in a 55 gallon drum full of concrete on the bottom of the Chicago River.

    If they want to send a message, the Dear Departed is found in their own car trunk in the long term parking lot at O’Hare.

  • Mom424


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  • rhijulbec

    Wow…sounds awful. Good article, thanks.

  • I read The Jungle when I was 12, a school assignment. I haven’t eaten hot dogs, sausages, baloney, any processed pork meats since. This Nut just confirms everything I read.

  • Glengarry Ricky Ross

    Well they dye the river green on Patty’s day, whats a little meat color to give it a nice brown hue.

  • American horror story is next up.. !