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 and 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…

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