For more than half a century, the Chicago Tunnel Company operated an extensive network of underground electric freight lines in Chicago’s business district. While their operations were crucial to Chicago’s Loop for much of the 20th century, they are still not widely known or appreciated, since they took place almost entirely out of sight to the average person.
By the 1890s, Chicago’s bustling downtown streets were crowded and congested by horse-drawn carts and wagons, as well as pedestrians, bicyclists, and cable cars. Eventually, much of this traffic was moved to underground tunnels that connected with the sub-basements of many buildings. Some Loop buildings had three levels of basements.
What eventually became 60 miles of tunnels was first authorized as a means of running telephone lines underground in 1899. Tunneling began surreptitiously, with workers digging through Chicago’s blue clay by hand using long knives. Within a few years, the tunnel’s main focus changed to moving freight, including merchandise, coal, and the resulting ashes.
You can read an early description of their operations here.
From photos, we can see that in some respects the tunnel operation was a very dirty affair. Since it hauled a lot of ashes, that should not be too much of a surprise.
One photo shows the sub-basement of the old Mandel Brothers department store, which was part of the rich history of retailing here. Chicago-style department stores eventually spread all over the world, as shown in the British-American television series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven. The real Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. (1858-1947) was Marshall Field‘s right-hand man before he went to London and opened a similar store there in 1909.*
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
This retail enterprise, which would become one of Chicago’s leading department stores, was founded in 1855 by Bavarian immigrants Solomon Mandel and his uncle Simon Klein. Their first store was located on Clark Street. In 1865, after Solomon’s brothers Leon and Emanuel joined the firm, its name became Mandel Bros. Purchasing in New York and Paris and selling in Chicago, the enterprise grew. By the 1880s, its new store on the corner of State and Madison Streets employed about 800 people. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the workforce had grown to over 3,000 people. Rebuilt in 1912 and renovated in 1948, the State Street store continued to operate into the 1970s, when the company folded amid State Street’s demise as a major retail center.
This description fails to mention that Mandel Brothers sold out to competitor Weiboldt’s in 1960. Their stores were converted to Wieboldt’s, which continued in operation until 1986.
Mandel Brothers was also notable as one of the very first American retailers to oppose Adolph Hitler in 1934:
Mandel Bros. Joins Boycott of Nazi Goods
CHICAGO (Apr. 4)
Mandel Brothers, largest Jewish-owned department store outside of New York City, has discontinued the buying of German goods owing to “customer resistance,” Leon Mandel, general manager of the store, announced today.
Mandel Brothers store is one of the six largest in the Chicago Loop district and the announcement created a sensation in retail circles.
“Mandel Brothers store announced today that owing to customer resistance to German goods, the firm has discontinued all purchases of German merchandise,” the statement issued by the concern read. “During the past six months Mandel Brothers placed no orders for merchandise in Germany. In line with the Mandel Brothers policy, every effort has been and is being made to develop successfully and feature American sources of supply of such merchandise.”
Decline and Fall
While never very profitable, the tunnel system managed to survive the Great Depression. But soon enough, forces converged that put it into an irreversible decline.
Chicago had been planning rapid transit and streetcar subways from the earliest days of the “L” in the 1890s. The franchises granted to the freight tunnel system allowed the City to displace them if and when such subways were built.
Work on Chicago’s “Initial System of Subways” began on both State and Dearborn in December 1938, and while many of the tunnels in the system were cut off as a result, in the short run, the system probably benefited as it was used to haul out the clay from excavation– some of which was done, like the freight tunnels themselves, by workers armed with long knives.
The final blow to the tunnel company came in the 1950s, when Chicago homes, apartments and businesses shifted away from using coal for heating and replaced it with cleaner oil and natural gas. It’s hard to imagine now, but Chicago’s neighborhoods were once littered with various coal yards, and you can still see coal chutes on some older apartment buildings.
With the demise of coal, the Chicago Tunnel Company’s operations sputtered to a close in the late 1950s, including bankruptcy in 1956 and outright dissolution in 1959.
After the Fall
Chicago’s freight tunnels have largely remained under downtown streets and have had a very interesting and active “afterlife” following their 1959 abandonment. Here’s where the tunnel system has intersected with my own life.
In the late 1970s, I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Grant Park. This massive building opened in 1921 and was a customer of the Chicago Tunnel Company, although the connection was made via an elevator, since the depths of the various tunnels were not the same. The Field Museum building itself was built on landfill and rests on top of wooden pilings.
While nearly all the tunnel company’s locomotives and freight cars were scrapped upon abandonment, one train remained marooned in the Field Museum sub-sub-basement, cut off from the rest of the system. Norman P. Radtke, manager of the physical plant, took me down there in the late 1970s to have a look at the locomotive and its ash cars. It seemed at the time that they would remain there forever.
However, here serendipity played a part. In the early 1980s, FMNH president Willard L. (Sandy) Boyd was helping to plan the museum’s participation in a 1992 Chicago World’s Fair. He lamented to me how the Field Museum was separated from the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium by the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive.
I made an offhand suggestion that there was plenty of room on the other side of the museum to relocate the northbound lanes. I left the museum’s employ in 1983, and as we now know there was no Chicago World’s Fair in 1992. However, due in large part to the efforts of Sandy Boyd, the idea of shifting half of LSD took hold.
The northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive were relocated to the east side of Field Museum and the new alignment opened in the late 1990s. As Mr. Boyd has remarked, even though there was no world’s fair, Chicago got its intended legacy anyway, in the form of an unbroken lakefront Museum Campus.
Ironically, work on the relocation project created a unique opportunity to remove the Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive and ash cars from their prison. This involved a tremendous effort put forth by volunteers at the Illinois Railway Museum, which you can read about here. These cars were saved and are now preserved at IRM, where they can be enjoyed by future generations.
Tunnel operations have been well documented by historian Bruce Moffat in two books, Forty Feet Below: The Story of Chicago’s Freight Tunnels (1982) and The Chicago Tunnel Story (2002, Bulletin 135 of the Central Electric Railfans’ Association)
In the Spring of 1992, I attended a private slide presentation Bruce gave about the Chicago freight tunnels at a friend’s house. Little did any of us know that less than a week later, the long-forgotten system would suddenly be thrust into the headlines.
On April 13, 1992, what some have called the Great Chicago Flood began, as a contractor inadvertently disturbed the clay surrounding one of the freight tunnels near the Chicago River by the Kinzie Street Bridge. The leak, which was not taken seriously at first, eventually turned into a breach, and eventually hundreds of millions of gallons of water flowed into the tunnel system, and into the sub-basements of many Chicago buildings. Even Chicago’s downtown subways were affected.
Instantly, Bruce Moffat had a well-deserved “15 minutes of fame,” to paraphrase Any Warhol. As the only recognized expert on the tunnel system, Bruce was all over the media in the days following the flood. The great majority of people had no idea such a thing existed, and Bruce was practically the only person who understood it and explain it.
The flood had a negative economic impact on the Chicago area that extended beyond downtown. I was involved in a Lincoln Park photo lab at the time, and our business suffered as a result. Thinking about this period has brought back a flood of memories.
I had an idea for a humorous radio ad to promote our business that would have played off the flood. The press had reported that City inspectors had taken pictures of the area where water was leaking into the tunnel, but instead of sending them to a one hour photo lab, they dropped them off at a store where it took a week to get the film back.
In my radio ad, two city workers would be looking at the tunnel leak, and you would have heard the sound of dripping water. One would have said that he was going to take the film to a place where he would get it back in a week, while the other would have suggested taking it to our lab, where you could get it developed and printed in as little as 30 minutes.
Before they could do so, however, the wall of the tunnel would have burst and both people would have been engulfed by the sound of water rushing in. Then, at the end, the narrator would have used this as a cautionary tale, telling people to bring their film to us “before it’s too late.”
Unfortunately, the radio station refused to make this spot, telling me that the administration of Richard M. Daley would not like it. The Great Chicago Flood, it turns out, was no laughing matter.
Now, Chicago’s old system of freight tunnels continues to benefit the downtown, with various communications cables running through them. On September 1, 2000, Central Electric Railfans’ Association hosted a rare inspection tour of parts of the underground tunnel system. Unfortunately, this is not likely to be repeated any time soon, in the wake of post-9/11 security concerns. The old tunnel system, a vital part of Chicago’s infrastructure even in the 21st century, is now closed off from public access.
*There is another Chicago-London connection. The underground freight tunnels here helped inspire the London Post Office Railway, which operated from 1927 to 2003.
PS- This information has been added to one of our E-books, which reproduces a 1928 book put out by the Chicago Tunnel Company:
Now Updated with 46 Pages of New Material:
Lifting the Lid in the Loop, 1915
The Chicago Freight Tunnels, 1928
Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations, 1913
The Chicago Tunnel Company (1906-1959) operated an elaborate network of 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge track in 7.5-by-6-foot (2.3 m × 1.8 m) tunnels running under the streets throughout the central business district including and surrounding the Loop, delivering freight, parcels, and coal, and disposed of ash and excavation debris.
Our E-book collection includes two short books issued by the Tunnel Company, detailing their operations. Lifting the Lid in the Loop is 46 pages long, has many great illustrations, and was published in 1915. To this we add a different 32-page illustrated book from 1928.
The third volume in this collection, Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations (60 pages) was published in 1913 to help facilitate the through-routing of the South Side and Northwestern elevated lines. As Britton I. Budd wrote in the introduction, “This book of instructions is issued for the purpose of familiarizing the employees of the South Side Elevated Railroad with the character, service, track arrangement, and general features of the system of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad, and to familiarize the employees of the Northwestern elevated Railroad with the same details of the South Side Elevated Railroad, before through-routed operation of cars is begun.”
Now The Trolley Dodger is making all three of these long-out-of-print works available once again on a single DVD data disc. Includes a Tribute to the late bookseller Owen Davies, who reprinted the “L” book in 1967, a 1966 Chicago Tribune profile of Davies, and reproductions of several Davies flyers. 177 pages in all.
This collection is a tremendous value, since an original copy of Lifting the Lid in the Loop alone recently sold for over $200 on eBay.
# of Discs – 1
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