Most Saturdays, we host a few dozen “gentle riders” on the Esotouric tour bus, revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles through visits to landmarks both notable and obscure. Because most of our passengers are Southland locals, we don’t offer tours during the busy Christmas season, which gives us the opportunity to play tourist ourselves. Mid-December found us on a breakneck architecture-rich road trip along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Join us, do, for a virtual journey (map) from St. Louis to Louisville ahead of the brutal December storms.
We saw the chimneys from the highway, twin brick columns rising above the old Armour Meat Packing Plant, once the nation’s most efficient killing machine. We didn’t know then what it was, only that we wanted to get closer. The chimneys made it easy, as we left the interstate and wound down the quiet rural road leading to the ruin.
There were some men parked there, near the old factory. As one told Kim how sad he was that this fine old hulk would soon be demolished for a new road, another was instructing Richard on how to navigate the weedy paths and safely access the factory floor. “Stick to the first room,” he said, “There are hazards past the threshold.”
Later, we read that National City, Illinois was a company town, born in 1907 as a city of death. Here was erected a grand factory that turned the squealing creatures of the stockyards into bacon, leather, tallow and beef, these products ferried neatly away by rail. The factory was a source of wealth for the adjacent city of East Saint Louis and a morbid tourist attraction. But when the killing stopped, in 1959, it was East Saint Louis that died.
The empty factory, so soundly constructed, stood tall through cold winters and humid summers. Thieves took what they could carry and vandals broke windows, and the trees grew thick up to the walls. As of a few months ago, the old Armour Meat Packing Plant was still there, a proud and terrible relic of the hungry, inventive America that was.
Stepping into its cold hulk on that freezing day, we felt the weight of time and of inconceivable suffering. This cathedral of commerce demanded respect, even in its ruined state. It didn’t seem right that it shouldn’t stand as long as time and nature allowed. When we gazed up through the open ceiling at those towering chimneys, the sky was very blue, then black with crows, then blue again.