Filed Under Disasters

The Great Cleveland Stockyards Fire

He was caught by chance. In early December 1945, Cleveland police officers had picked up and questioned two 14-year old girls on an unrelated matter. The girls mentioned a 12-year old boy in the neighborhood who had boasted about setting fires. The boy was brought in and he eventually confessed to setting the March 11, 1944 fire that the Cleveland Plain Dealer called "one of the most spectacular and disastrous" in the city's history. He said that he had done it for a thrill.

The fire that the boy set was at the Cleveland Union Stockyards on West 65th Street between the Big Four railroad tracks and Storer Avenue. It destroyed ten acres of pens and adjoining buildings on the stockyards' 40-acre property. Billowing black clouds of smoke from the fire could be seen for miles and prompted hundreds of people to call the Plain Dealer to find out what was burning. Newspaper accounts claimed that 25,000 people turned out to watch 15 Cleveland Fire Department engine companies battle the blaze for hours.

When it was all over, Cleveland firefighters Norman Kitzerow and Patrick Mangan lay dead and three other firemen had suffered life-threatening injuries in the fire fight. Over 100 animals--hogs and cattle, had died too, some in the blaze itself and others afterwards when, running crazed on W. 65th Street, they were shot dead by police armed with submachine guns.

Cleveland's stockyards hadn't always been as large as they were at the time of the Great Fire. Nor had they always been located on W. 65th Street. For most of the nineteenth century, a number of small stockyards existed in the city, with the largest of these in the Walworth Run valley near Columbus Street. In 1881, a group of Cleveland businessmen joined together to form the Cleveland Union Stockyards Company and aggregate the city's stockyards on a nine acre parcel of land on what was then considered the far west side of Cleveland. Adjacent lots were purchased in the decades that followed.

By 1926, the peak year of Cleveland Union Stockyards activity, one million hogs, 400,000 sheep, and 135,000 cattle were annually slaughtered there. In that era, the Stockyards were the third largest industry in Cleveland, each year doing fifty million dollars worth of business. It was also the seventh largest stockyard in the United States, and the largest between New York and Chicago.

In the short term, the Stockyards recovered from the 1944 fire. Employees were seen the next day building temporary pens on the site. But just as most Clevelanders in the 1940s didn't know that their city was already sliding toward decline, Stockyards officials didn't yet realize that the glory days of their enterprise were behind them. All around the country, large stockyards, including Cleveland's, were opening up smaller branch stockyards closer to other communities they served. And when companies like Swift & Co. decided in the 1950s and early 1960s to abandon Cleveland as a meatpacking center, the end for the Cleveland Union Stockyards was near.

Union Stockyards closed in 1968. Another entity, Cleveland Livestock Market Several, tried to keep the stockyards open and did so until 1974, when it ended its operations. The property was then sold, the pens and associated buildings were torn down, and a K-Mart was built on the site.

Images

The Great Stockyard Fire Thousands of neighbors and other curious Clevelanders gather at the Cleveland Union Stockyards on W. 65th Street to look at the smoking ruins of animal pens and other building destroyed in the March 11, 1944 fire, called by the Plain Dealer one of the "most spectacular and disastrous" in Cleveland history. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
From the Air This aerial view of the Cleveland Union Stockyards taken probably in the mid-1920s shows the configuration of the stockyards (middle of photo) and meat packing houses (upper right of photo) along West 65th Street. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Map of Stockyards This 1922 Cleveland map graphically shows a typical geographical relationship between stockyards, railroads and meat packing houses in large American cities of the early twentieth century. The stockyards--the large yellow buildings on the left received cattle, hogs and sheep from the railroads--shown as the brown slanted line in the upper left of the map. Many of the animals in the stockyards were eventually sold to, slaughtered at, and processed in the meat packing houses--the red buildings to the right of the yellow buildings across W. 65th Street. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Winter at the Stockyards This photo shows a ground level view of the Cleveland Union Stockyards in 1918. By this year, Cleveland had surpassed Cincinnati as Ohio's "Porkopolis," and its Stockyards on W. 65th Street held more hogs in its pens than any other city in the United States between New York and Chicago. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
The Second Firefighter is Carried Out The March 11, 1944 fire at the Cleveland Union Stockyards claimed the lives of two Cleveland firefighters, Norman Kitzerow and Patrick Mangan. They died when a 15-foot tile wall collapsed on them as they were fighting the fire. Three other firefighters and two civilians were also injured when the wall collapsed. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Black Billowing Clouds of Smoke The Cleveland skyline on March 11, 1944 was crowded by smoke from the Cleveland Stockyards fire. This photo was taken five blocks away from the blaze, which took the lives of two Cleveland firemen. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Cattle This 1951 photo shows the large numbers of cattle that were kept at the Cleveland Union Stockyards on W. 65th Street as well as the crowded manner in which the cattle were penned. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Hogs As bad as the cattle had it, the hogs lived in even more crowded conditions in the pens at the Cleveland Union Stockyards, as this 1959 photo reveals. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
The Firebug is Caught and Confesses When the police caught the 12-year old boy who started the tragic 1944 fire at the Cleveland Union Stockyards, it made front page news. The boy said he had set a number of fires in addition to this one, including a fire at the Pilsner Brewing Company just across the railroad tracks from the Stockyards. He called himself "a dope," but said he "couldn't resist" setting fires. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “The Great Cleveland Stockyards Fire,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 3, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/629.