'The Ohio runs red with blood!' The not-so-pretty tale of how Cincinnati became Porkopolis


Cincinnati has long been called the Queen City, befitting its reputation for arts and culture. For a time, though, it was known by a less flattering nickname – Porkopolis.

The reason: Cincinnati was the nation’s busiest meatpacking city for several decades in the 19th century. Pigs ran through the streets. Slaughterhouses emitted offensive odors and streams of blood. Yet, most importantly, there were streams of profits.

“By 1850 Cincinnati was the principal hog market in the world,” boasted the book “They Built a City: 150 Years of Industrial Cincinnati,” written by federal writers for the Works Progress Administration in 1938.

It’s no coincidence that in 1850 Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the nation – prosperity built on pork packing.

‘Cincinnati is the city of pigs’

Cincinnati came by the sobriquet Porkopolis honestly. Richard Fosdick, the city’s first meatpacker, discovered a curing process for pork using rock salt and opened a slaughterhouse on Deer Creek (now Eggleston Avenue) in 1810.

The rock-salt curing became the cornerstone of the meatpacking business here. More farmers began using their land to raise pigs. Steamboats carried the cured meat all the way down to New Orleans. Soon canal boats were bringing in natural ice cut from rivers and lakes to be used for refrigeration.

Yet the citizens were not so happy about the whole meatpacking process.

They complained that drivers herded pigs through the streets. The hogs devoured garbage in the gutter and trampled people’s property. Then there were the ghastly realities of the slaughterhouses.

An illustration of the “Journey to the Slaughterhouse,” depicting pigs being herded through the streets of Cincinnati, was published in Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 4, 1860.An illustration of the “Journey to the Slaughterhouse,” depicting pigs being herded through the streets of Cincinnati, was published in Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 4, 1860.

An illustration of the “Journey to the Slaughterhouse,” depicting pigs being herded through the streets of Cincinnati, was published in Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 4, 1860.

As “They Built a City” put it: “Deer Creek, often running red with slaughter, was a stinking cesspool. Citizens complained so vigorously that, with the opening of the Miami & Erie Canal, many of the abattoirs were removed to Brighton and the Mill Creek Valley, ostensibly to be closer to the canal and the stockyards, actually to avoid recurring complaints to city officials about slaughter-house odors.”

Another vivid description comes from Isabella Lucy Bird, who wrote in her 1856 travelogue, “The Englishwoman in America”:

“I must not close this chapter without stating that the Queen City bears the less elegant name of Porkopolis; that swine, lean, gaunt, and vicious-looking, riot through her streets; and that, on coming out of the most splendid stores, one stumbles over these disgusting intruders. Cincinnati is the city of pigs …

“Huge quantities of these useful animals are reared after harvest in the corn-fields of Ohio, and on the beech-mast and acorns of its gigantic forests. At a particular time of year they arrive by thousands – brought in droves and steamers to the number of 500,000 – to meet their doom, when it is said that the Ohio runs red with blood!

“There are huge slaughterhouses behind the town, something on the plan of the abattoirs of Paris – large wooden buildings, with numerous pens, from whence the pigs march in single file along a narrow passage, to an apartment where each, on his entrance, receives a blow with a hammer, which deprives him of consciousness, and in a short time, by means of numerous hands, and a well-managed caldron system, he is cut up ready for pickling.”

An illustration of the pork-packing industry in Cincinnati, by Henry Farny, 1873.An illustration of the pork-packing industry in Cincinnati, by Henry Farny, 1873.

An illustration of the pork-packing industry in Cincinnati, by Henry Farny, 1873.

The pork-packing process was not pretty. An 1873 lithograph illustration by Cincinnati artist Henry Farny depicts scenes of pigs being bled, washed and then hung and cut to be processed and salted.

All parts of the animal were used, including rendering pig fat into lard. That byproduct spawned prosperous soap- and candle-making businesses, notably Procter & Gamble in 1837 and Emery in 1840. (Emery began with lard oil, then pivoted to real estate, such as building Carew Tower.)

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Courthouse in a pork house

The Hamilton County Courthouse at Court and Main streets was surrounded by slaughterhouses before they moved to Brighton.

Gorham A. Worth, in his 1851 memoir, “Recollections of Cincinnati,” joked that the pigs were “totally unfit to be used either as witnesses or jurors,” and that their close connection with the court was peculiar, “but the lawyers don’t mind that, they are not a very scrupulous people.”

In 1849, the courthouse was destroyed in a fire. While a new building was constructed, an old pork house was used as a temporary courthouse.

In his 1880 book, “The Old Court House,” Judge A.G.W. Carter wrote: “The accommodations … in the pork house court house were very commodious and convenient, bating their high elevation and the continued and continuous smell of pork about and around, which sometimes disturbed the olfactory nerves of the judges and the lawyers and the juries.”

The end of Porkopolis

Cincinnati’s reign as Porkopolis was ended by the railroads. With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the frontier expanded further west. The Great Plains were ample for farming livestock, and Chicago and Kansas City were more accessible by rail, thus more affordable options than transporting hogs to Cincinnati for processing.

By 1885, Chicago had surpassed Cincinnati as the meatpacking capital.

The flying pigs at the entrance of Bicentennial Park at Sawyer Point honor Cincinnati’s past as Porkopolis.The flying pigs at the entrance of Bicentennial Park at Sawyer Point honor Cincinnati’s past as Porkopolis.

The flying pigs at the entrance of Bicentennial Park at Sawyer Point honor Cincinnati’s past as Porkopolis.

The memory of Cincinnati’s porcine past was honored with bronze statues of pigs with wings placed at Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point in 1988. Sculptor Andrew Leicester’s intent was a celebration of the role of hogs in the city’s Porkopolis history, but many folks thought the figures were in poor taste.

Over the years, Cincinnatians have grown to embrace the flying pig as a fun symbol of the city.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Why is Cincinnati called Porkopolis? A history of ‘the city of pigs’



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