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Chicago Underground

Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893

by James Gilbert
University of Chicago Press, 279 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Constructing Chicago

by Daniel Bluestone
Yale University Press, 235 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Louis H. Sullivan: A System of Architectural Ornament Inc., 986 Woodland Avenue, Plainfield, NJ 07006, 908-757-4700; (fax) 908-756-4133. Discount available for booksellers.)

foreword by John Zukowsky, by Susan Glover Godlewski, essay by Lauren S Weingarden
Rizzoli / The Art Institute of Chicago, 159 pp., $110.00 (Copies of this book are only available from Roy P. Jensen,


In the spring of 1992, maintenance crews in Chicago found that a mysterious flood was filling the downtown area’s extensive system of subbasements. There had been no rains to cause this, no rise in the Chicago River. Local columnist Mike Royko said Lake Michigan must have sprung a leak—and, sure enough, fish were soon spotted in the rising waters. Vulnerable underground electric cables and control panels were sputtering out. Thousands of tons of water were breaking through partitions, threatening the foundations of historic buildings. Even when the source of the water was found, the mystery was not dispelled. A puncture had occurred in an abandoned network of delivery tunnels, in the part that runs under the Chicago River. The river was coursing all through and under the downtown, through fifty miles of these labyrinthine conduits. Most Chicagoans had never heard of the tunnels, and even those who had were vague about their origin and purpose.

The builders of the tunnels had wanted it that way. They gave limited and misleading accounts of their purpose while wresting building permits from a suspicious (and venal) city government.1 Chicago was slow to develop subways, in part because of a high water table and recurring problems with sewage. Lake Michigan has a mushy shoreline here. The first skyscrapers had to be built on concrete “floating rafts” inserted in the ground to hold the buildings up.2

On the other hand, it was necessary to put some traffic underground by 1900 (when the tunnels were begun), since the congestion of the city streets had reduced walking to a form of slow-motion wrestling. By 1893, two people a day were being killed in the city by trains going through crowded crossings—and many more were maimed, prompting one dire vision of a city filling up with armless or legless people, their extremities sheared off in the insistent shove of trains through acres of human traffic jams.

The grade crossings were still being closed by hand at that time, and the bridges over the Chicago River were being turned by men stationed to let masted ships go through. Crowds huddled into a kind of human cheese. The hero of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Titan (1914) sees this human jelly and decides he can become master of the city if he threads trolleys through it, sorting the people out and speeding them along. He fights for tunnel rights under the river. His sense of power comes from literal manipulation of people, from his ability to remake Chicago, inch by inch, at its center:

Before the newspapers or the public could suitably protest, crowds of men were at work day and night in the business heart of the city, their flaring torches and resounding hammers making a fitful bedlamic world of that region; they were laying the first great cable loop and repairing the La Salle Street tunnel (Chapter 26).

Dreiser’s hero is based on the financier Charles Yerkes, who helped take Chicago from horse-trolleys to cable-pulled cars to electric trains and elevateds, advancing new technologies by buying off the corrupt politicians of the 1890s.3 Yerkes first opposed “the EI,” since it would compete with his control of surface trains; but he had to join in the obvious solution to competition on the ground—divert some of the traffic upward, over the street.

The other obvious solution was to get it under the street; but fears about the buildings, shakily rooted in Chicago’s mud, made that an unpopular idea. How, then, did the mysterious tunnels of the 1992 flood get a city franchise in 1899? By bribes, of course—that was how all business was done. But also by lies. The developers claimed they were only laying cable for a telephone company, to get poles and service wagons out of the overhead congestion.

By the time the city’s inspectors got around to reporting on these “cable tunnels,” dug at night so people would not notice the amount of dirt being smuggled away from the scene, they found that the tunnels were almost thirteen feet high, and track was being laid (supposedly to carry out the dirt in mining cars). The builders’ obvious goal was to sneak a subway system under Chicago before the city knew what was happening. Public reaction put the franchise in danger; so the builders cut their tunnels’ height down, to under seven feet—they claimed their workers needed head-clearance to lay, patrol, and repair the telephone cables.

The developers still wanted to work their way up to transporting people; but they began with freight service to department stores whose basements reached down to their tunnels. The rails hauled coal and ashes, they took mail from the post offices and department stores. Though constantly blocked in their efforts to heighten the tunnels, the owners came up with many ingenious uses for their underground system. The tunnels were used to pipe steam heat into stores from giant boiler rooms. In the summer, the chilly air from forty feet below the surface was pushed up into theaters to air condition them. The connection with the grand old Chicago Theater still exists, and popcorn odors wafted through the tunnels right up to the day of the flood.

Hyping the tunnels became a challenge for Chicago’s public relations firms. Mae West was given a tour and pictured saying, “Come down and see me sometime.” The track junction under “the world’s busiest corner” had signs posted “Madison and State,” for people to be photographed at. When tourists help up traffic below, a fake “Madison and State” was created solely for photographic purposes. Tourists could not tell where they were, in the maze of turns and crossings, once they were underground. Deception was the very air these tunnels breathed.

Much of Chicago’s history could be traced in relation to these tunnels, which were not entirely abandoned till the end of the 1950s, after half a century of semiclandestine service. When the Field Museum on the lake-front was opened in 1921, a special spur was created to get coal to it. Marshall Field, who had first threatened to sue the tunnels for mucking around near his building’s foundations, later became an enthusiastic customer—the tunnels carried his mail orders to postal stations.

The tunnels were created in a risky environment, like all of Chicago. The blue clay from which they were carved was so easily worked that men dug twelve feet a night, using no tools fancier than scooping knives. The clay taken up was used to extend Grant Park into the lake. Give and take between land and water was always going on, and one could not at first be sure which was which. Emerson, visiting the town in 1853, complained that “if we step off the street, we go up to the shoulders, perhaps, in mud.” Sewage put in this porous soup just floated back up. Late in the 1850s, the city came up with the typically bold (if partly mad) expedient of laying sewer pipes on the surface and jacking the buildings up above their height. A famous lithograph of the time shows hundreds of men turning winches to raise the Briggs House while patrons on the hotel’s balconies look down.4 This literal “upgrading” of the town went on for two decades, and its last phase is still evident in Pilsen, the former Polish section, where some buildings, instead of being raised, just opened a new ground entrance on what had been their second floor.

If the land was too mushy, in the nineteenth century, so was the lake. The Chicago River ran into the lake, pushing silt out at its mouth, keeping ships from their docks. A little more applied madness provided the solution: turn the river around. Make it flow backward. By deepening the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1871, engineers deflected the Chicago River into the Illinois River, letting Lake Michigan’s overspill shove the Chicago’s waters downstate. (A second advantage of this was to send pollution from the stockyards out of the immediate area.)

Chicago, in short, made itself up as it went along. The whole place is artifice. Older geography books used to speak of the site—at the base of Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Chicago River, on a rich plain—as the natural junction point for shipping, trains, grain, livestock, and timber. It is the first of many merits in William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis to shred that illusion beyond recovery. The city was an act of will, a défi, an imposition, a triumph over circumstance. There was nothing “natural” about it. (Cronon’s title is ironic.) The site was bad in almost all respects. It was a place where stubbornness was its own reward, where entrepreneurs liked to think they had made everything around them—even made the land, even made the water. The weird thing is that much of that boast was true. Cronon explains brilliantly how the city used breakthrough technologies to capture timber, grain, and livestock which did not flow, of themselves, to this odd site, any more than the population did.

In 1860, what would soon become the nation’s “Second City” in population was still tied for the title of eighth city. St. Louis, at the center of the Midwest’s water system, was the obvious choice to become the rail center as well. Chicago, which had remade its site, set about to remake the national map in its own favor. Grain, the great product of the Midwest, had been processed out of St. Louis, which had rivers feeding into it for barge traffic, and a long riverfront for the clumsy transfer of those grain sacks that were the units of trade. In 1850, St. Louis handled twice the grain Chicago did. But Chicago had a stationary river front on which it could build the big grain elevators, with steam-driven lifts, just invented for loading trains. St. Louis, with a Mississippi forever eating at its shoreline, had no similar site.

To get grain out of labeled sacks into loose streams, Chicago had to invent the machines and the grading and inspection system that made grain a literally fluid commodity. This technological-regulatory breakthrough let Chicago shoot ahead of St. Louis overnight. By 1857, it cost only half a penny to move a bushel of grain through Chicago, as opposed to seven cents per bushel in St. Louis. Trading on receipts for the grain in Chicago’s vast elevators made the city control grain trade and speculation. The famous fire of 1871 affected the rail and elevator links hardly at all—though it did give the city a chance to house its national institutions, the Board of Trade and the Stock Exchange, in handsome buildings.

The excitement of the world’s grain pouring out of the rich midwestern breadbasket through Chicago is what makes Frank Norris’s The Pit (1903) such a gripping novel. The book’s heroine, Laura—first glimpsed at the opera, where she is rapturous over the music—catches a deep pulse running through the audience as men whisper about the fortunes being made and lost, that minute, down the street at the Board of Trade. The grain trader shoves troubadours and tenors out of Laura’s giddy head, to be replaced by her Napoleonic master of the world’s grain. The trading pit, in which all this energy was harnessed, translated the liquid gold of grain into the golden liquidity of cash (and back again):

  1. 1

    Surprisingly little has been written about these tunnels, though Upton Sinclair made the hero of his novel The Jungle work briefly in them and suffer an accident there. After the flood, Bruce Moffot’s 1982 study in an interurban series had to be rushed back into print: Forty Feet Below, The Story of Chicago’s Freight Tunnels (Interurban Press of Glendale, California). At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Cook County sheriff Joe Woods (brother to Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary) proposed incarcerating arrested “hippies” in the tunnels. (See Chicago History, December 1992, p. 28.)

  2. 2

    See Donald Hoffmann, The Architecture of John Wellborn Root (University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 24–26, 68, 164. This may be the best overall introduction to the Chicago School of Architects.

  3. 3

    For Yerkes’s street trains, see Louise Bessie Pierce, A History of Chicago, Vol. 3 (Knopf, 1940), pp. 216–218. For his purchase of politicians, see Ray Ginser, Altgeld’s America (Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1958), pp. 106–112.

  4. 4

    Harold M. Meyer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 94–96. Two of the most skilled house raisers of this period were George and Albert Pullman, who had been apprenticed to their father, a house mover along the path of the Erie Canal. George went on to be the manufacturer of Pullman railroad cars and the founder of the workers’ village named for himself. See Lison E. Leyendecker, Palace Car Prince (University Press of Colorado, 1991), pp. 13–35.

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