Chicago’s Forgotten Underground Freight Tunnels

By Brian J. Failing on May 25, 2012

TOURSDAILY

Beneath the skyscrapers of Chicago there is an unseen world that many Chicagoans are unaware of. Hidden deep below the skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop are underground freight tunnels. I have personally heard stories that these tunnels exist, but I always assumed them to be a myth. I certainly did not know about  their importance to the history of the city of Chicago.

The Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company originally built this expansive network of tunnels at the beginning of the twentieth century. The tunnels were originally built to hold telephone and telegraph cables, but this soon changed after the Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company ran out of money.  In 1912 the Illinois Tunnel Company took over the underground construction and devised new uses for them for stores and warehouses. Stores like Marshall Fields could then move merchandise, packages and waste to and from their stores.

These tunnels are over forty feet below the surface of city streets. As discussed in “Chicago’s Unique Underground” these tunnels are so far below ground that they are below the sewers, pipes, cables, wires, and conduits of the modern city. One of the largest benefits and incentives to use the tunnels was that they reduced traffic congestion on the streets of Chicago, especially in the Loop. Even when the tunnels were in use few people of the city of Chicago knew they existed beyond those who used them. When completed nearly sixty-two miles of tunnels criss-crossed underneath the city. The tunnels were six feet wide and 7.5 feet high with one-foot thick concrete walls. Overhead trolley wires powered them.

The variety of uses went beyond the aforementioned retail merchandise shipping, to large train depots and warehouses. They were also used for the delivery of coal and other heating materials to buildings. Most importantly the tunnels served as a way to remove the ashes and waste from coal-burning buildings and take them to the dump, and having the tunnels underground, where the burning was happening, was incredibly efficient. By moving shipping underground, these tunnels helped reduce street level traffic during times of intense congestion. (If you’ve been on our “Inside the Loop tour,” you may recall the Thomas Edison film we watch of State and Madison Street form 1897.)

In the super intricate map above, you can get a sense of how expansive this system really was. The tunnels encompassed the whole Loop area, and ran under nearly every street from the river down to sixteenth street. The tunnels even went south under the Illinois Central yards (the tracks that run through Grant Park today) as well as north of the river. To this day no other city has had a system of freight collection and delivery comparable to Chicago’s.

So you’re likely wondering, where are these tunnels now? Well most of them are still there. The tunnels were used until 1959 when they were vacated as a mode of delivery. Today, some sections of the tunnels are used for utility and communication lines, and other parts have been transformed into the tunnels for the red and blue lines. None of the tunnels have been used for the Pedway system, which does not go as far below ground level. Since they are so securely sealed up, it is unlikely that anything like “Dark Days” is going on down there. Many Chicagoans were unaware of the tunnels until April 1992 when one of the tunnels under the Chicago River near Kinzie Street was punctured, flooding most of the system and two dozen downtown buildings with open tunnel connections. Then we all very much recalled that this unseen and forgotten underground system was down there!

~Brian Failing: Research & Collections Intern