When the Chicago River sprung a leak 20 years ago today, it wasn't the first time the city's system of underground tunnels was the source of an unpleasant surprise.
On that Monday, April 13, 1992, many Chicagoans learned for the first time of the miles of freight tunnels honeycombing downtown. As Loop basements filled with water and emptied of people in a mostly invisible urban disaster, the heads started rolling and the cleanup bills piled up. An embarrassed Mayor Richard M. Daley immediately blamed a bungling city bureaucracy, and indeed it was revealed that city officials had had at least a month to fix the leak but failed to act in time. It took four days to plug the leak and weeks to pump out the waterlogged basements, subbasements and sub-subbasements, like those at Marshall Field, Carson Pirie Scott, 29 E. Madison St. and DePaul University.
See, the tunnels themselves were an audacious, legally suspect land grab by a wealthy businessman who received city permission to lay telephone wires under the Loop and parlayed that into constructing an extensive underground railroad.
In March 1899 the Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Co. and its president, Albert Wheeler, received a 30-year lease "to construct and operate in all the streets, avenues, alleys, and tunnels and other public places of the city … conduits and wires or other electrical conductors … for the transmission of sound signals by means of electricity or otherwise."
Less than a year later, the commissioner of public works reported, "The city will be unable to head off the promoters of this scheme. Something should have been done long ago, but it is now too late, I fear. More than two blocks of the concrete tunnel have been completed, beginning in Powers & O'Brien's basement and running in Madison street to La Salle, and then to Monroe and Washington streets."
Wheeler refused to explain himself, saying only, "We don't want the question aired before the public."
As city officials blustered, Illinois Telephone kept digging. Harrison was told these big 7-foot-high by 6-foot-wide tunnels were needed to handle the hundreds of thousands of telephone wires intended to service the Loop. But the surprises kept coming. In March 1902, city officials found tunnels big enough to "drive a load of hay," 14 feet high and 12 feet wide. Wheeler said it was storage space.
A month later, Wheeler finally came clean on his scheme. In a blatant example of "ask for forgiveness, not permission," he announced plans to use the tunnels to deliver packages, newspapers, mail and other goods throughout downtown. He admitted he would need the city's permission to operate such a business, and said, "The wires … will be strung in the roofs of the tunnels, and we will have left ample space to be devoted to other uses."
Of course, Wheeler got his approval, but not before a Tribune editorial headlined "The illegal tunnels" took the city to task for the whole fiasco. And city lawyers issued a report questioning the existence of the tunnels themselves. "The city has never admitted that the company is entitled to build anything more than conduits for the carrying of telephone wires," the report read.
Five people — Wheeler, a former alderman, the former city clerk, the deputy city clerk and the city printer — were indicted in 1905 for forgery in the scandal. But the charges were tossed by a judge who, while ruling that the company "knowingly intended to defraud the city," found a technicality: The prosecutors failed to show how the defendants benefited.
But over the years, as the outrage faded, the wonder grew. These tunnels were a marvel. A 1909 story, headlined "Underground Chicago is as mysterious as the sewers of Paris and as wonderful as the catacombs of Rome," painted a vivid picture of thousands of tons of merchandise, coal, ash and refuse being transported 40 feet underground on a narrow-gauge electric railroad. A company could drop tons of merchandise at a South Loop tunnel depot and have it reappear as if by magic at four different locations, delivered in some cases directly to a firm's basement warehouse or to any of the city's main railroad depots. At its height, the system of concrete-lined tunnels ran for more than 60 miles, under nearly every Loop street and south to Roosevelt Road, north to North Avenue and as far west as Halsted Street.
The benefit went beyond the speed and ease of delivery and extended above ground. Loop streets then were an almost impassable tangle, with multiple streetcar lines competing with pedestrians and hundreds of horse-drawn wagons (and later, automobiles). And don't even get a shipping manager started about the vagaries of getting his goods across the Chicago River via one of the fickle lift bridges! As the 1909 story pointed out, that one shipment of goods took 106 wagon loads of freight off the streets. Also sent underground were the hundreds of coal shipments, and banished from the streets were the three-horse drays groaning under 5-ton loads the Tribune called "one of the bugbears of the Loop district."
But the system never made money, at least for the company's shareholders, who never saw a dividend in the life of the venture. In 1929, when the lease expired and the tunnels became city property, the various corporate entities that owned the tunnels owed the city more than $1 million in unpaid franchise fees. A new 30-year franchise was granted in 1932, but by 1949, a city report found that the system was deteriorating and accused the company of diverting revenues to avoid paying a portion to the city. As late as 1954, the system still moved 220 tons a day, but competition from trucks and a changing economy forced the tunnels to close in 1959.
But the tunnels didn't go quietly. In July 1959, in a spot very close to the 1992 leak at Kinzie Street, excavators punctured the tunnel. Water poured in, but a widespread disaster narrowly was averted.
So could it happen again? Not likely. After the 1992 flood, massive concrete bulkheads were installed at the 30 spots where the tunnels intersect the river.
Editor's note: Thanks to Jill Krupp, of Bartlett, for suggesting this Flashback.
From land grab to Loop flood
For decades, underground tunnels played vital role in city's history
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