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’s Loop 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 Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour.

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.

The tunnels also handled coal deliveries and other bulky cargoes. Most importantly the tunnels served as a way to remove the ashes and waste from coal-burning buildings and take them to the dump, and having the tunnels underground, where the burning was happening, was incredibly efficient. By moving shipping underground, these tunnels helped reduce street level traffic during times of intense congestion. (Loop Interior Architecture Tour guests you may recall the Thomas Edison film we watch of State and Madison Street form 1897.)

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

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

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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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