Curious City debuts. First assignment: Al Capone's tunnels

June 13, 2012

Alex Keefe

An editors note: Alex Keefe is WBEZ’s first staff guinea pig, er, reporter assigned to follow up on a question submitted through the Curious City project, an effort to get to the bottom of questions you’ve got about our region and the people who live here.

The first question that won a round of voting was about whether Chicago gangster Al Capone left secret tunnels beneath the unsuspecting town of St. Charles, Illinois.

Now, Alex Keefe on his game plan:

Hear Curious City Senior Producer Jennifer Brandel on Wednesday's Afternoon Shift.

And this basement is where my memory blurs into the legend. Because this is where everybody said the tunnels began. The nexus.

Step 1: Al Capone's what?

The entirety of what I know about Al Capone's underground network of booze-running tunnels, which may or may not still criss-cross large swaths of Chicagoland, comes from one source: Starbucks.

Starbucks is not your usual go-to source for Chicago gangland history, but let me explain. In high school I had a cool job as a barista at the Starbucks (back then, there was still just one) in St. Charles, Ill. And back then (I graduated in 2002), it was still a cool job; people wore jeans to work, played punk over the cafe audio system and, on Friday nights in the summer, made margaritas in the Frappucino blenders.

This particular Starbucks on Route 64 was in an old building that also houses an old theater called the Arcada. And this is where it gets really cool: We shared a basement.

I don't remember exactly what drew us Starbucks employees down there. Maybe we had been asked to get a vacuum, or grab light bulbs, or to dig out the cafe holiday decorations come winter. But I do remember that, even if you tried, you couldn't imagine a creepier basement - low ceilings, cobwebs, cold brick walls, exposed light bulbs whose glow didn't quite reach the end of the narrow, underground hallway that ran the length of the building.

And this basement is where my memory blurs into the legend. Because this is where everybody said the tunnels began. The nexus. The supposed center of Al Capone’s west-suburban web of bootlegging.

One of them ran to a bar down the road. One of them dug its way beneath Riverside Avenue, toward what was then a sandwich shop. Another shot all the way underneath the shallow, muddy width of the Fox River. To where? Who knows.

This urban legend is why I took on this Curious City story in the first place. It involves a fascinating bit of pseudo-history as well as a spooky corner of my own memory. And, I have no idea whether there’s a whiskey-drop of truth to any of it.

So I’ll begin this process the way I imagine many 21st century reporters begin to search: Google

Step 2: Bread crumbs on the Internet

One of the first reputable-seeming links I find comes from a CBS web story from February 2011. It mentions tunnels beneath the Green Mill, a Chicago jazz joint on Chicago’s North Side, but it includes nothing about tunnels in St. Charles. I do find a name, though: Jonathan Eig, who is apparently a writer who put together a gangland tour app. I find his website and his email, so I drop him a line to set up an interview and to see if might know anything about my urban legend.

After more Googling, I find this nifty History Channel show about the Green Mill tunnels, and some specious-looking chat board posts about similar tunnels in suburban Algonquin, Wis., and Saskatchewan, Canada. But nothing about St. Charles.

After some more Google swings and misses, I decide I’ll reach out to a few other sources to try and verify: the St. Charles Historical Society, the current owner of the Arcada Theater, and one of my old high school teachers who (I think) used to date a guy who once owned the building in question.

And so the hunt continues …