The Chicago Freight Tunnels

March 7, 2011

Bruce G. Moffat uncovers the freight tunnels that lay beneath the Loop. Currently housing communications and high voltage electrical conduits or lying empty, during the firs half of the 20th Century they were a vital network for the city and the images from Bruce’s collection are a testimony of it.


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1904 construction view of a completed tunnel with track and telephone conduits overhead. © Bruce Moffat Collection.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the streets of Chicago’s relatively concentrated Central Business District (known as the Loop) were already at or beyond capacity, with streetcars, horse-drawn delivery wagons, and pedestrians vying for space. Were it not for the fact that horse-drawn buggies were few and the debut of the mass produced private automobile was still in the future, the situation would have been worse. The Loop and its adjoining areas were home not only to large department stores and office buildings, but also six major railroad railroad terminals, the seemingly innumerable warehouses and freight terminals maintained by railroads and steamship lines, numerous wholesale and warehousing operations, and even light manufacturing firms who contributed to the congestion–all in the name of commerce. The crush of supporting vehicles made the streets nearly impassible at times.

It was this situation that caused the promoters of a new telephone system to add the construction of a subterranean freight railway to their plans. The Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company had been organized in 1898 to construct a telephone system that would compete with the well-established Chicago Telephone Company. The City of Chicago required the IT&T to place their wires underground in conduits. Construction of the conduits began in late 1899; however. these were crafted to a size much larger than needed to hold mere wires. Built to a dimension of 7 1/2 feet high and 6 feet 9 inches wide, they happened to be just large enough to also accommodate a narrow gauge railway.

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December 1929, tunnel train being loaded with packages in a Loop Department store. © Bruce Moffat Collection.

Although it is unclear if the railway was a part of the company’s plans from the start, they failed to tell the city they were building a railroad until construction was fairly well along, apparently fearing municipal meddling. What is clear is that the subterranean railway was envisioned not to handle passengers but freight. By diverting freight from slow moving wagons on congested streets to electric trains running beneath them, it would be possible to move goods of almost every description quickly between railroad stations, boat docks, department stores and factories. The building of a “subway” for freight, rather than for passengers, was, to say the least, unusual. And excepting a specialized mail handling railway that would later open in London, it was unique among the world’s railways.

Following the company’s admission in 1902 that they were building a railroad in their telephone “conduits,” the City Council began a contentious round of negotiations with the company that resulted in the passage the following year of an ordinance authorizing the operation of the railway with hefty franchise payments going into the municipal coffers. Construction crews dug tunnels under nearly every downtown street at a depth of forty feet. This depth ensured that most tunnels would run through clay, which simplified tunneling. The relatively small size of the tunnels meant that standard railroad cars could not be used. Instead, specially built freight cars measuring about ten feet in length and five feet in width had to be used. This meant their cargo had to be manually transferred to/from “full size” railroad cars for delivery to distant points.

In 1906, the freight tunnel railway opened under the name of the successor Illinois Tunnel Company (a subsequent reorganization resulted in the name being changed to the Chicago Tunnel Company). Freight loads typically consisted of small packages (parcels) from department stores destined to mail order customers located outside of the downtown area, non-liquid commodities of all types destined to wholesale and large retail customers, coal for building heating, and removal of heating ash.

In 1910, the company reported to the state and federal regulatory commissions that they had nearly 60 miles of track and 22 connections with railroad freight houses and 45 commercial buildings. It was estimated that the company’s little trains had diverted the equivalent of 1.3 million vehicle trips from the streets. By 1924, traffic had declined slightly, even though the number of commercial buildings served had risen to 60. (The telephone side of the business had been discontinued in 1916 due to excessive losses.)

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Chicago Tunnel Co. 1920s system map. © Bruce Moffat Collection.

In the succeeding decades, results were largely no better, resulting in the company being at best marginally profitable. Reasons for the company’s rather lackluster results was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the relatively low number of connections to on-line buildings. The cost of tunneling into those buildings frequently had to be borne by their owners and, in many cases, this did not make economic sense. For many potential users it was simply cheaper to have a wagon (or later motor truck) pull up to the curb.

The enterprise’s original concept—to divert freight from the streets and put it underground—was novel and certainly a century or more ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the system’s physical constraints, and indeed the changing nature of central area land uses, made its business model impossible to sustain. The list of adverse “environmental” changes that buffeted the company during the 1940’s and 1950’s was a long one: connecting railroads had largely discontinued the handling of small packages and had closed or relocated their freight handling operations to outlying areas; the construction of the passenger subways now used by the Chicago Transit Authority had forever severed connections to some of the Loop department stores; motor trucks siphoned away most of their freight business; light manufacturing was rapidly disappearing from the Loop; and finally, buildings were converting from coal to gas for heating. The end of operations came in 1959.

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Tunnel Company locomotive and safety sign in 1928. © Bruce Moffat Collection.

To help pay creditors, most of the locomotives and freight cars were sold for scrap. as was the electrical distribution system that had powered the trains. The track remained, however, as it was too difficult and expensive to remove from the concrete floor.

Now entirely controlled by the city, the tunnels entered a period of dormancy, broken only in the mid-1970s when the city began leasing out limited portions to house electrical and communication conduits. Maintenance and inspection of the tunnels was at best minimal.

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Tunnel Company mail car at Grand Central Station in 1906. © Bruce Moffat Collection.

Largely forgotten, the 40-plus miles of tunnels that remained surged back into the public’s consciousness on April 13, 1992, when a section of the Kinzie Street tunnel that passed beneath the Chicago River gave way. During 1991, the city had directed a contractor to drive a series of wood pilings into the bed of the river to protect the Kinzie Street Bridge from being struck by passing vessels. In doing so, the contractor had driven one of these into the wall of the freight tunnel that ran beneath the river at this point. The placement error and harm to the tunnel wall was not found until January 1992, when a surveying crew for a communications company stumbled on the damage.

The city’s efforts to follow up on the survey crew’s report and initiate repairs turned out to be too little too late. Early on the morning of April 13, 1992, the wall gave way and the sub-basements of many of downtown Chicago’s largest and most iconic buildings quickly filled with water as the river literally surged into the largely forgotten network of tunnels. Other buildings and the CTA’s passenger subways sprang leaks where they were built up against the nearly century-old freight tunnels, but fortunately remained relatively largely dry. Quickly dubbed the “Loop Flood,” this unusual calamity attracted worldwide attention. Large sections of the Loop were temporarily evacuated due to fears that power failures resulting from the flood would trap workers in their high rise office buildings.

Efforts to stop “the leak” were fruitless. Only after the tunnels had completely filled was it possible to seal-off the ruptured tunnel and begin the dewatering process, a task that took until over a month to complete. Business and physical losses were over $1 billion dollars by some estimates. Since that time, the city has made improvements that should prevent a reoccurrence of the flood.

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View south on Wabash at connecting tunnel to Marshall Field’s. 10-21-1992. © Bruce G. Moffat.

Today, some of the tunnels house communications and high voltage electrical conduits. Others remain empty and some sections have been filled in or obliterated due to construction of the CTA subways and large buildings.

It is complicated to speculate about the potential that the tunnels may have beyond the current utility galleries they are in some areas. The tunnels are too small and too deep for public transportation purposes. Their only non-utility use could be as a tourist curiosity, like the tunnels and caverns under other cities such as Paris. They could be understood as a form of cave exploration or “urban spelunking.” However, the City of Chicago has been generally unfavorable towards the idea of having tours conducted through the network. But there is something intoxicating about searching the network and finding remains of a railroad that has been abandoned for more than 50 years.