Chicago's Abandoned Freight Tunnels
by James Agenbroad
The definitive history of the Chicago freight tunnels is Bruce Moffatt's "Forty Feet Below : the Story of Chicago's Freight Tunnels" from which I have paraphrased this story. The book is filled with maps, diagrams and photos.
Around the turn of the century, tunnels were dug under most of the streets in the "Loop" area of downtown Chicago. Permission was granted under the pretense of creating a competing local telephone service.
Interestingly enough, new telephones were installed in the tunnels, and they were technically advanced, with "secret" (i.e. automatic) exchanges so that you didn't have to tell your number to an operator. These phones were of the "candlestick" type with a large dial on the handle. But the phone system was mostly a ruse to secure permission to dig under public streets, and then to construct the second longest 2-foot gauge railroad in the U.S.A.
The builders envisioned their tunnel being used for general freight shipping in central Chicago. However, it was hard to raise freight from forty feet below street level (via elevators or conveyor belts). The little electric railroad's small cars were incompatible with standard railroad cars. So, the most economic uses of the mini-railroad became the hauling of coal and coal ash in and out of buildings, as well as removing spoil from construction sites. The large capital costs of the tunnels meant that the company was often on the brink of receivership.
Bruce Moffat argues that it was the subway that finally killed the tunnel. When the subway came thorough, the tunnel lost several miles of track, as well as its best customers, and the freight line had to use circuitous routes around the subway bore.
When the tunnels were abandoned in 1959, with several loads of ash still in their cars in the sidings, they lay forgotten by most until 1992, when a tunnel under the Chicago river burst and filled them with water. This was a problem for all those buildings with connections with the tunnels, because their basements were now filled with water up to the level of the river. Most affected were those with the deepest basements and the best connections to the tunnel. e.g. Marshall Fields building which had a mini switch yard in the sub-basement.
Since it carried mail from 1906-1908, this dead tunnel system was once a medium.
James Agenbroad (firstname.lastname@example.org)