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Why The 1992 Loop Flood Is The Most Chicago Story Ever

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(David O’Hare/Flickr)

On April 13th, 1992, Chicago was struck by a man-made natural disaster. The Great Chicago Flood of 1992 occurred completely underground and, fortunately, nobody was hurt. There were no dramatic rescues from office buildings and there were no canoes paddling Michigan Avenue. Still, the flood was a big deal. It made national news and shut down the Mercantile Exchange, The Sears Tower, and the Art Institute. It damaged records in City Hall, closed businesses in the Loop (some for weeks), and ultimately caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Chicago buildings.

John Foley, of Libertyville in the north suburbs, knows all that, but wants confirmation of something his father told him about the 1992 flood’s origins:

My question ... is whether or not there’s a secret system of railroad tunnels under the Chicago Loop area that contributed to the Chicago Loop Flood back in the 1990s.

The answer is: Yes, absolutely! Underground railroad tunnels were involved; to say they “contributed” to the flood is an understatement. That much was clear from coverage back in the day, and Google can fill in some of the missing pieces for you. (Our own presentation below explains the basic mechanics, if you’re unfamiliar and your time is tight.)

How to answer John’s question? Well, after reading about the 90-year history of those tunnels and how they came to flood on that April day, I developed a theory I’d like to run past you: The Great Chicago Flood is the Most Chicago Story Ever. It’s a nearly perfect convergence of neglect, corruption, incompetence, and scapegoating. And because nobody got hurt (except the scapegoats) we can laugh at it now, marveling at how many classically Chicago-y elements combined to bring about this one event.

While many Chicago stories have some of the elements I list below, I defy you to find another single story that hits all eight.

A note on evidence in this story: Some details and facts of how and why the flood occurred remain in dispute to this day. I read dozens of newspaper articles, interviewed a transit historian, and either spoke to or read accounts by several Chicago insiders who are familiar with the workings of city government in the 1990s. What you’ll read below is an interpretation based on the available accounts. Where possible, I document my sources so the readers can make their own judgements.

Why The Great Chicago Flood Story is the Most Chicago Story Ever:

1. A construction project lacking the proper permits

The tunnels that brought about the 1992 Flood were never supposed to be there. In 1899, the company that built them, Illinois Telegraph & Telephone, had a franchise (or permission) to build a telephone system in the Loop, which included laying underground cables. Conduit is normally an inch or two wide, but the company sneakily built 7-foot-wide underground “conduit” for those cables. In 1902, it came out that these “conduits” were in fact tunnels meant to house an underground rail system. IT&T may have been a legit phone company, but they also planned to operate underground trains that would bring coal, mail, and other freight to buildings in the Loop; they would also remove coal ash and other trash. At the time, most buildings relied on horse-drawn carts for deliveries, but traffic congestion downtown was terrible (worse than today) and traffic-free tunnels would be a huge improvement. The only problem: IT&T did not have the right permits for an underground train system. Building the train tunnels without permission was a huge abuse of their original franchise, and City Hall was not pleased, with some Aldermen referring to IT&T's tunneling as a “land grab.”

2. Clout and corruption

The intersections of State and Madison Streets, 40 feet below ground. (Photo courtesy Bruce Moffat)

According to transit historian Bruce Moffat, City Hall’s objection to the tunnels might not have been entirely in defense of the public’s interest. IT&T likely paid bribes to get its original telephone franchise, and Moffat points out aldermen expected even larger bribes for permission to build a railroad. “Perhaps the aldermen felt they’d got cheated on the deal,” he says.

Moffat speculates IT&T worked its clout. Aldermen friendly to the company convinced their colleagues to compromise (perhaps money changed hands under the table) and in July of 1903, after a work stoppage of over a year, IT&T was granted an updated franchise that allowed them to build a railroad under Chicago. They soon incorporated as the “Illinois Tunnel Company.” Over the next seven years, the company built 60 miles of underground tunnels, right in the heart of the Loop. Despite its controversial beginnings, the tunnel system was an impressive feat of urban engineering and Chicago had the first underground freight railroad system in the world. Trains began operating in 1906, and for a good 50 years they competed with surface delivery carts and trucks. At one point, IT&T ran 83 trains and had more than 200 employees working underground.

However, the tunnels began to lose their competitive advantage: Chicago invested in paved streets, automobiles became widespread, and traffic rules were changed to favor cars and trucks. By 1959 — after several bankruptcies and reorganizations — the vestiges of the company abandoned the tunnels completely.

3. Neglected infrastructure

The City of Chicago was stuck with the expense and responsibility for maintaining the tunnels after 1959. Today, the tunnels are sometimes described as “secret” or “forgotten,” but as Bruce Moffat points out, “The tunnels were more accurately ignored. Anything manmade needs maintenance or it will deteriorate over time.” The tunnels routinely leaked water from the surrounding clay soil, but those leaks were of little concern to the city.

Looking back, it’s difficult to know exactly who in city government was responsible for maintaining the tunnels. By 1991, James McTigue, an electrical technician in the General Services Department, was familiar with the tunnels and occasionally led workers from other departments or businesses into the tunnels when they needed access. According to Bruce Moffat, there may have been one or two city employees who occasionally went into the tunnels, but apparently there was no schedule for routine inspections, nor a chain of command dictating who to alert in the case of problems. To most Chicago public servants, the tunnels were firmly, and thankfully, “somebody else’s problem.” Of course, on that fateful day in 1992, they became the whole city’s problem.

4. Something buried underground makes trouble later

Here’s where disaster strikes. In September of 1991, Great Lakes Dredging, an independent contractor, replaced pilings in the Chicago river. Pilings protect the bridges from runaway barges. One of their new pilings near the Kinzie Street bridge damaged the roof of a freight tunnel, allowing water to slowly leak in.

In January of 1992 a television cable company discovered a leak in the tunnels. They tried to notify James McTigue — who they knew was familiar with the tunnels — but the city had recently re-organized and they couldn’t locate him until February. McTigue tracked down the leak, took photos, and showed them to his supervisors in March, explaining a leaking tunnel under the river could lead to a massive flood. Despite that warning, the city did not expedite repairs.

The city rejected an initial repair bid of $10,000 because it considered the cost too high, and new contractors were scheduled to inspect the tunnels on April 14th. In the early morning of April 13th, that small leak finally gave into the enormous water pressure of the Chicago River above. The tunnel’s ceiling collapsed and water began filling in. As they were in the system’s early days, many of the tunnels were still connected to the basements of many buildings in the Loop.

5. The Chicago River moves in a strange new direction

On that same morning of April 13th, 1992, Larry Langford was in his car, listening for trouble. He was the overnight reporter for WMAQ news radio and his car was equipped with several scanners with which he listened to police, fire, city government, and even private security radio channels. He began hearing reports of flooding in several basements in the Loop. At first, he assumed it was a water main break — a hassle but easy to shut down. But then, Langford says, he heard a report from the Merchandise Mart: “‘Hey! There’s fish in the water!’”

Langford realized that if there were fish in the basement, there was no way the problem could be coming from a water main (since fish, along with micro-organisms, are effectively kept out by the city’s filtration plants). He knew there was an abandoned freight tunnel near the Merchandise Mart, so he drove to a nearby riverbank and peered down into the river in the dim morning light. He recalls: “What I saw looked like the biggest bathtub drain ever. There was a swirl of water about 10 feet across. It was full of debris.” Just as it did in 1900, the Chicago River moved in a new direction; this time, it just happened to be circular.

Langford went live on WMAQ and reported his suspicion that the source of the flooding in the Loop was likely the Chicago River itself, and suggested somebody wake up the mayor. Minutes later, he says vehicles from the Police Department, Fire Department, and Streets and Sanitation showed up, and “black city cars with officials with cigars” also arrived on the scene. The first thing they did, Langford says, was tell him: “‘Get out of here.’”

Sound like Chicago to you?

From the other side of the river, Langford watched as city crews dug a shaft into the tunnel, and tried to plug the leak with sand, rocks, and concrete. (Several witnesses claim the city dropped mattresses into the tunnels to stop the leak, but the City denies the claim, explaining that while, yes, a load of “green and white” mattresses was sent to the site, no mattresses were actually deployed). 

6. Helpful Public Servants

Workers drain water from Marshall Fields' flagship store on State Street in downtown Chicago, April 17, 1992.  Field's was one of 14 buildings which had 25 fieet of water in their sub-basements.  Spokesmen for the department store said they'd lose millions of dollars before reopening but they expected to recover.  (AP Photo/Mark Elias)

As city engineers and private contractors worked to plug the flooding tunnel, water continued to fill downtown basements. City Hall, The Art Institute, The Mercantile Exchange, and The Merchandise Mart all experienced flooding. Concerned that ComEd substations would flood and explode, the City shut down power to part of the Loop. Tens of thousands of office workers were evacuated, including 15,000 people in the then Sears Tower. The subways stopped running for lack of electricity.

By many accounts, the City of Chicago did an excellent job getting everybody safely out of the Loop. CTA diverted busses downtown to make up for the subway. NPR Reporter Ira Glass interviewed two trainee Chicago police officers directing traffic on their first day of work. Park District employees prevented a disastrous cave-in of the Grant Park underground parking garage. There were no reported injuries, and according to Ira Glass, “It made you feel great about City of Chicago.”

7. Unhelpful Public Servants

In the weeks that followed, Chicagoans learned about a series of mistakes, half-measures, and failures to act, that in hindsight, made city government look bad. Newspapers reported Great Lakes Dredging Company had asked and received permission to move the location of their new piling, even though there was a tunnel within a few feet of their construction site. Their construction at Kinzie Street bridge was never inspected (the engineer responsible explained he couldn’t find parking). Mayor Richard M. Daley’s recent governmental reorganization, intended to make city governance more efficient, had made it difficult for the cable company to find James McTigue, since his phone number changed. Several people in General Services had been informed of the danger, but most acted cautiously, avoiding recommending an expensive repair to a budget-conscious administration.

Did Mayor Daley seize the opportunity to take full responsibility and lead a transparent process to learn what had went wrong, and make sure the City learned from its mistakes? Come on, this is Chicago we’re talking about. Daley gallantly asserted “Individuals [failed], not the city.” Three were suspended, three resigned, and two were fired. Later reports suggested two of those blamed, Acting Transportation Commissioner John LaPlante, and James McTigue, were probably unfairly scapegoated. McTigue won a wrongful dismissal case seven years later; the city reinstated him and paid him a negotiated $99,000 in damages.

In fact, James McTigue appears to be one of the few public servants in the 90-year history of the tunnels who actually showed concern for public safety, repeatedly warning supervisors of the danger. The 1903 city council allowed the tunnels to be built without a plan for what would happen if and when they were abandoned. When they were abandoned in 1959, Chicago could have sealed or filled in the tunnels. It would have been expensive, then, but the flood ultimately cost Chicago an estimated $1.95 billion.

While no one person deserves blame for the Tunnel Flood, Bruce Moffat alludes to a culture of neglect: “There’s probably plenty of blame to go around.” 

8. The Second City comes in Second

I’ve laid out seven reasons I believe the Tunnel Flood is The Most Chicago Story Ever. They span exactly 100 years, from IT&T’s franchise in 1899 to James McTigue’s reinstatement in 1999. By themselves, they make a strong case, but here’s one more piece of evidence that puts the Tunnel Flood over the top.  

When the tunnels flooded in 1992, an estimated 250 million gallons of river water entered the tunnels and basements. As far as we can tell, that set a record as the largest underground flood in an American city. However, since New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling affectionately nicknamed Chicago “The Second City” in 1952, New York has been keen to remind us of our place. In 2012, that city got its chance to once more assert its primacy: Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in New York’s subway system of an estimated 500 Million gallons, making Chicago second to New York. Again.

More about our questioner

John Foley from Libertyville heard about the tunnels’ role in the Loop Flood from his father, a transit engineer. When he learned how the tunnels were never supposed to be there, were ignored for thirty-years, and the one city worker who tried to warn about a leak was fired, he remarked that it sounded like the City he knows. “Only in Chicago”, John chuckled. John’s also interested in seeing the tunnels, so if anybody out there works in a downtown basement with access, please be in touch.


FN1: Moffat, Bruce, The Chicago Tunnel Story. The Central Electric Railfan's Association, Chicago: 1992.

FN2: The Park District’s frantic efforts to save the Grant Park Parking Garage are described in detail in RJ Nelson's forthcoming book Dirty Waters.

FN3: Kass, John “Daley bags 4 bureaucrats; Mayor tells of ‘incredible’ flood fiasco” Chicago Tribune April 23, 1992 P25C.

FN4: James McTigue’s account of events is laid out in Long, Ray and Fran Spielman, "McTigue tells his side of the flood saga" Chicago Sun-Times May 7, 1992. P4. I suspect his account is accurate as other accounts from City employees support the details, and many reporters and City Hall watchers believe McTigue was scapegoated. The City continued to dispute McTigue’s side of the story even after the Federal Government ruled Chicago’s basis for firing McTigue was faulty. See Washburn, Gary “City worker, fired after flood, feels vindicated; engineer has job back, settlement for $99,000 Chicago Tribune September 5, 1999. Page 1C.

Jesse Dukes is Curious City’s audio producer. Robin Amer and Marc Filippino contributed reporting.

Correction: A slideshow presentation misstated the amount of damages involved with the flooding. The correct figure for physical damages is in a range between $400 million and $600 million.

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