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They didn't fly, but pigs once roamed Cincinnati streets by the thousands in a meat-packing marathon

By the 1830s, Queen City was known as Porkopolis
They didn't fly, but pigs once roamed Cincinnati streets by the thousands in a meat-packing marathon
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 02, 2017

CINCINNATI -- Pigs never flew in Cincinnati, but there was a time when wild hogs were as free as birds and marathoners to run the city's streets. New York banker Gorham A. Worth witnessed the Running of the Hogs, if you will, numerous times during his 1817-25 stay in Cincinnati.

As the city approaches the May 5-7 weekend of the 19th Flying Pig Marathon, we thought we'd present a compact history of hogs here by starting with what Worth (1783-1856) wrote about them in his end-of-life memoir titled "Recollections of Cincinnati."

"What I think will surprise you most of all is the great and unaccountable number of hogs that at times make their appearance in the city," he wrote. "I don't mean the strangers, sir, nor the people of the country, but the real hogs.

"Where they come from nobody knows. It is kept, I believe, as a sort of state secret. When you go into the country you see nothing but trees, no houses, no hogs, nothing but heaps of trees, but all standing up ...

"And yet there, in the hog season, the first thing you'll know will be that they are coming; and on they will come, and in they will come, till all the 5- and 10- acre lots on the hill (particularly those round and about the Court House) are filled with them. Why they should put them with the jerrydiction (sic) and under the very nose of the court I never could guess.

"I have always considered them as an irresponsible animal, and though not very easily led by the nose, yet totally unfit to be used either as witnesses or jurors. Their close connection with the court, therefore, has a queer, not to say an ugly look; but the lawyers don't mind that, they are not a very scrupulous people."

Certainly, Worth's description was tongue-in-jowl. Other writers' comments were more serious.

Isabella Lucy Bird wrote in her 1856 book "The Englishwoman in America": "The Queen City bears the less elegant name of Porkopolis; that swine, lean, gaunt, and vicious looking, riot through her streets. ... Cincinnati is the city of pigs. ... They arrive by thousands -- to meet their doom, when it is said that the Ohio River runs red with blood."

Four years later, Times of London correspondent Nicholas A. Woods wrote this about Cincinnati's hogs: "They come against you wherever you turn, from hogs, black, muddy unsightly monsters, down to little sucklings not much bigger than kittens, on which you inadvertently tread and stumble, amid shrill squeakings almost enough to blow you off your legs."

Where'd they come from?

The first swine were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus and later by Hernando de Soto. Turned loose or escaped from their captors in the Southeast, hogs spread undeterred for many decades.

Thirty years after Cincinnati's 1788 founding, Elisha Mills established the first modern meat-packing plant in the city. His barrels of brine-filled pork contributed to a powerful national appetite for salt pork and started an industry that earned the city its nickname, Porkoplis, by the 1830s.

Meat packing plants processed 85,000 hogs in 1833, mostly in the winter months. By 1860, some 2,400 Cincinnati workers were slaughtering about 450,000 hogs a year. Many roamed the meat-packing district eating debris before meeting their maker, according to early historian Charles Cist.

Chicago surpassed Porkopolis as the nation's No. 1 pork-packing city in 1862 and never looked back. Cincinnati shifted to other industries to spur its growth, and the meat business slowly declined, decade by decade, until the Cincinnati Stockyards closed in 1980.

Enter the Flying Pig

Cincinnati pretty much had shelved its hog history by the time it turned 200 in 1988. But a controversial movement to grace the entrance to the new Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point with flying pigs designed by artist Andrew Leicester resurrected interest in the city's piggy past. Several city council members donned pig snouts during meetings to mull over what to do with Leicester's winged hogs.

Since then, what had been the symbol of Cincinnati's stinky, dirty days of meat packing became a whimsical symbol of its spirit. The phrase "when pigs fly" -- known in grammar-speak as an adynaton -- is a figure of speech that describes an impossibility. To many Cincinnatians, the fact that pigs do fly at Bicentennial Commons means that, in their city, anything is possible.

The many runners who will wear pig suits during the Flying Pig weekend prove that point to be true in Cincinnati.