The everyday life pre-1930 is all but vanished from the landscape, replaced by an occasional Paul Bunyan statue or Mill City Museum. While the pickup trucks driven by the under worked contractors will growl past you, and while you'll see barges, steam-wreathed recycling plants, and the dying gasps of the Ford factory, mostly the era of the urban factory is erased and replaced by shiny buildings and cubicles.
What's become of these past lives? Sure people remember the mills, but outside of a little corner of the city, nobody really remembers the city's huge Union Stockyards, the giant acres and areas of Armor and Swift and with fences and railroads and cattle and buildings filled with sharp moving objects.
They've vanished without a trace. The only thing you'll find is a lonely plaque hard to find amidst the rambling office parks filled with dentists, car places, and struggling startups. There's no sign of the old yards, where thousands of cattle were slaughtered … The only slaughtering done now takes place in a small corner of an old brick building run by the Hmong, and the smell when you walk in the door makes you immediately want to walk out again. I guess nobody wants to go to an abattoir museum.
[The old pens and tracks of the stockyards, c. 1895. Img MNHS.]
[The Union Stockyards viewed from atop the bluff in 1910. Img MNHS.]
South Saint Paul used to have two of the largest stockyards in the country, Armour and Swift, that together employed thousands of people on the flats along the curve of the Mississippi River where the railroad tracks run. (How many? The internet doesn't seem to know.)
If there is a memorial to the old stockyards, it's probably the lunch counter at the T&T Galley. The galley, home of “the tug,” a heart attack mammoth of eggs, potatoes, and cheese, is where you'll find the stockyard memories. Every day old timers gather around the two counters and settle in with newspapers, and if you ask they'll tell you about the 70 (!) bars that used to be lined up along Concord Avenue across the street from the stockyards, where the thousands of workers would go to drink beer and forget about the crappy job they had or the great Mississippi flood of 196???, where the river rose over the warehouses and they had to go out in duck boats and rescue thousands of submerged cans of Corned Beef Hash. Its kind of like Fort Snelling's living history re-enactors, only here they're all real.
And the streets of South Saint Paul are also alive with a kind of living history. The old downtown area, perched on top of the bluff overlooking the stockyard flats, have old buildings and main streets and sidewalks and a town center with a town hall and a library and a history museum and lots of benches and crosswalks and wide streets and lamps and all the things that make walking around a pleasant thing to do.
Today, too, South Saint Paul doesn't exactly have the kind of fancy street feeling of any of the high-end neighborhood neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, with their Bibelot shops and fancy restaurants. In fact, all the old buildings here are barely occupied today. You'll find a few diner-type restaurants, a kitchy coffee shop, a bunch of antique stores and a chiropractor and things like that. (OTOH, there are great views of the river and the valley below.)
[A well-bundled woman pushing her cart in the street next to the wide sidewalks of South Saint Paul.]
While the old timers that hang around in South Saint Paul these days are probably nostalgic for how things used to be, when there were thousands of people working every day down along the rail lines in the river valley, I'm not sure that working in a stockyard is the sort of thing you should really be nostalgic about. I've read The Jungle. I can only imagine what the smell was like as it drifted up the bluff and along the river, the stink of thousands of hogs and cattle shitting and being slaughtered and all that blood having to flow somewhere... I'm sure a hot summer day in South Saint Paul was a foul experience.
But all that is gone. It's worth a visit to South Saint Paul, and while you'll not find any obvious tribute to the area's industrial past, you can find it in the streets that are still designed for you to get around on two legs, each foot in front of the last, walking into the future.
[Inside South Saint Paul's Dakota County history museum you'll find an indoor old city street complete with barber shops and general stores.]
[The First United Methodist Church casts soft stained light onto the snowy night streets of South Saint Paul.]