Chicago’s Freight Tunnels: the Forgotten Underground

Beneath the skyscrapers of Chicago there is an unseen world that many Chicagoans are unaware of. Hidden deep below the skyscrapers of Chicago are underground freight tunnels. I always assumed them to be a myth, but they are quite important to the history of the city of Chicago. The extent of these tunnels is something that I want to bring to further light for guests on our Downtown Bucket List private tours.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Origins of the Underground Freight Tunnels

underground freight tunnels Chicago
Abandoned freight tunnels pepper underground Chicago. Image via Wikimedia

The Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company built this expansive network of tunnels at the beginning of the twentieth century. Originally meant to hold telephone and telegraph cables, the project stalled 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.

What’s the Use?!

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.

Where’d They Go?

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

In the super intricate map, 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 stopped carrying cargo in 1959. They sat empty and forgotten for decades until April 1992. 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.

Today, some sections of the tunnels are used for utility and communication 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. Finally, no, we do not and cannot tour the old freight tunnels. The city has had them well-sealed since the flood.

~Brian Failing: Research & Collections Intern


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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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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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.

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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.


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.


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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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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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.

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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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