#617: Trains, Corpses and a $400 Million Hole – Three Things Underneath Chicago

April 6th, 2016

My mother has been posting photos of what the privy diggers found.

I grew up in an old house which, apparently, used to have an outhouse right below the maple I used to climb. *

Outhouses in the 1800s were apparently trash dumps too, so my parents let some privy diggers — professional excavators — dig down to see what was there. They pulled out crystal wine stoppers, old bottles, cracked porcelain plates with blue-dyed townscapes, all right under my old maple.

It got me thinking about what’s beneath our feet in Chicago.

Abandoned Streets and Train Lines

I’ve already written about (and broken into) the abandoned subterranean Carroll Street. It was an old train line that, nowadays, is a grimy dirt road housing House of Blues roadies, missing political signs, night shift workers and spots for breathtaking views of the Chicago River.

Photographer AJ Kane came with me to document this buried roadway.

A different abandoned train line had a wetter fate.

In the early 1900s, tunnels were dug beneath the city for a telephone system that never happened. They eventually became the Chicago Tunnel Company, 47 miles of train 40 feet below the Loop, carrying everything from coal to mail between office buildings.

The company went bankrupt in 1959. Efforts to stop the tunnel from flooding started soon after. Aside from the completely predictable talk during the Cold War about using it as a bomb shelter, it was shut off and pretty much forgotten.

In 1991, workers replacing the pilings around the Kinzie Street Bridge (pilings are those big bundles of logs that keep boats from hitting the bridges) got permission to put them two-and-a-half feet south of the original spot.

Those 30 inches were the difference between some boat-bumper logs in the mud and cracking into the long-forgotten tunnel wall. The wall burst in 1992 (my dad had taken us into Chicago for a Sox game that day) and the underground areas of the downtown flooded.

“The Great Chicago Flood” cost $1.95 billion in damage, $25 billion in lost trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and eight city officials their jobs.

12,000 Corpses (Possibly)

I won’t dwell on this too much, but Lincoln Park (the park itself, not the neighborhood, used to have a massive cemetery. So many bodies so close to the city’s drinking water was problematic, so they carted the bodies off to various other cemeteries in the 1856 “Great Removal.”

There might be as many as 12,000 unaccounted for, left under the joggers and sunbathers at Lincoln Park.

A $400 Million Hole

Block 37, the massive, stupidly convoluted development project next to the Daley Center, has condos. Beneath the condos, a mall. Beneath the mall, a pedway walking path and, below that, subway lines.

Below that, the abandoned and padlocked empty shell of a CTA superstation for nonstop trains to the airports.

Mayor Daley the Second’s administration spent $218 million to build the superstation before abandoning the project in 2008. The nonprofit Civic Foundation estimates taxpayers will pay $2 million in interest on the superstation every year until 2028. This will bring the total cost to $400 million dollars for a gigantic, locked-up hole in the ground.

And here’s the stupid part: The original plan was to use existing ‘L’ tracks to get to the airports until the funding would be organized for their own private tracks.

The “non-stop” trains would have been stuck behind the Blue, Red and Orange line trains that make every single stop.

For More CHUD Life:

For a better look at the city through time, check out these historical “What’s under Chicago?” articles:

What? I never claimed I came up with the idea.

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* A pastoral hometown? Yes. One where the unemployment rate is so chronically high the New York Times drops by every few years whenever we hit worst in the nation? Also yes. Don’t get judgy because I write about Chicago but grew up in Narnia.

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