Today is the 25th Anniversary of the Chicago Flood

April 13, 1992 was a deeply strange day in Chicago history. By mid-morning the city center was emptied of people, something likely not seen since the Great Fire of 1871. Hundreds of thousands of workers were sent home. Venerable institutions like the Board of Trade shuttered. The city lost billions in productivity. All this because, below street grade, 250 million gallons of water from the Chicago River were coursing through downtown. It was the great Chicago flood and it was a classic Chicago fiasco which I always enjoy sharing during the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour.

How’d the Chicago Flood Happen?

Chicago flood 1992 kinzie Street bridge
The wooden pilings surrounding the Kinzie Street Bridge caused the Chicago flood. Image via Wikimedia

The Chicago flood began when a construction crew drove a new wooden piling into the Chicago River near the Kinzie Street Bridge. In doing so, they inadvertently drove a hole into the roof of a long-neglected tunnel. It was a part of the larger Chicago Tunnel Company system, which our Loop Interior Architecture Tour guests know, was dug in the early 20th Century.

This network of tunnels bored through the clay 40 feet below the city streets. Originally planned to carry telephone lines, they eventually carried everything from retail packages to coal ash. The system was incredibly large, covering over 60 miles in downtown Chicago at its peak. Competition from the trucking industry eventually drove the Chicago Tunnel Company out of business and their warren of tunnels was mostly forgotten. Until April 1992, that is.

The Slow-Motion Disaster of the Chicago Flood

The Chicago flood didn’t start in a flash. In fact, the leaks started over six months prior, in September 1991. A cable company worker noticed water entering the tunnels in January 1992. A city electrical technician examined the leak and even took video footage. He alerted his superiors, but City Hall rejected a $10,000 repair bid as too costly. They planned to have another contractor do an inspection on April 14. Welp.

The roof of the tunnel gave way in the early morning of April 13 and the Chicago flood was on.

Larry Langford, an overnight radio reported for WMAQ, broke the story. He heard someone on a police scanner exclaim that there were fish in the water flooding the Merchandise Mart. Thinking quickly, he drove over to the Kinzie Street Bridge, looked down at the river, and saw a whirlpool. He reported his find on the air and city vehicles of all stripes descended on the site within moments.

Lots of Water and Lots of Money Go Down the Drain

Chicago flood 1992 Chicago Tunnel system map 1910
A 1910 map of the Chicago Tunnel System shows just how far the waters of the Chicago flood reached. Image via Wikimedia

Contractors dug an emergency hole and filled it with debris and concrete to stop the flood. Supposedly, workers even flung mattresses into the river in the hope that the suction would block the breach. I can only hope that was true! But 250 million gallons of river water had already rushed through the tunnels. Those waters could have shorted out sub-stations and power lines, collapsed the Grant Park North parking garage, and destroy merchandise and records in basements. All non-emergency workers evacuated downtown for their own safety.

Eventually, workers drained the flood waters into the Deep Tunnel System. In the meantime, businesses suffered nearly $2 billion in damages. In some areas the waters got up to 25 feet deep. Some of the images from that day are surreal. According to reports, the Thompson Center‘s atrium was so flooded that furniture from the food court was floating around. I wonder if there were any soggy Sbarro’s breadsticks in there…

Finger pointing began immediately, of course. Investigations eventually blamed the City of Chicago itself for the flood. They had not inspected or repaired the tunnels and leaks despite plenty of warning. Hilariously, the contractor whose work set off the whole fiasco got a light penalty because of the vagaries of Admiralty Law.

Fortunately, we have not had a repeat flood since then. The watertight bulkheads the city installed in the tunnels might have something to do with it. If you’d like to learn more about Chicago’s many layers, we explore some of the areas affected by the Chicago flood on the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

ABOUT CHICAGO DETOURS

Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Yelp and TripAdvisor.

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Jen

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
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Elyse

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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