Chicago Freight Subway

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Pre-1910 photograph of the Chicago Freight Subway

The Chicago Freight Subway was a unique freight tunnel network under the downtown of the city of Chicago. It inspired the construction of the London Post Office Railway.



Construction of the subway began in 1899, and the full system with a tunnel under almost every street of downtown Chicago was finished in 1906. Six feet wide by seven and a half high (1.8 by 2.3 metres) tunnels were officially constructed to house only telephone cables, but the Illinois Tunnel Company also secretly installed two foot gauge railroad tracks in them.


First test trains were run a few years after the start of construction, which locomotives received power from a third rail cog which was situated in a slot between the two running rails, but later it was decided to change the third rail to overhead lines. Tunnel freight cars were delivered to railroad freight stations, warehouses, office buildings, and store buildings via elevators or direct access.


In 1912, the Illinois Tunnel Company, daughter of Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company was reorganized and renamed the Chicago Tunnel Company, and all of the telephone cables from tunnels were removed. Through the years, the system has expanded to approximately 60 miles (97 km) of track, with 149 four wheeled electric locomotives, and over 3000 freight cars in service.

Missing image
This artist's impression overstates the size of the Chicago Freight Subway tunnels. The tunnels were actually rather cramped, requiring narrow-gauge track.

Trucks stole away significant amounts of business, and by the late 1940s, customers began to switch from coal to natural gas to heat their buildings. The ones that kept burning coal switched to delivery by truck because unloading from the surface was easier, and a complex conveyor system was not required.

Even though coal deliveries were made with trucks, it was still more efficient to remove ashes by tunnel. This basically left the company in the ash removal business for the last ten years of operation.


Chicago Tunnel Company was declared bankrupt in 1956, the network was closed and abandoned in the summer of 1959. The scrappers removed almost all of the overhead wire and elevators; locomotives and steel freight cars were removed and scrapped as well.


In 1992, a cable television employee in the tunnel underneath the Chicago River videotaped mud and water oozing in where the bottom of wooden pilings penetrated into the tunnel's roof. Official response was slow; no emergency measures were deemed necessary, and a formal bidding process begun for the contract to repair the damage. In April, a large hole formed in the roof of the tunnel where a new wooden piling had been driven into the riverbed, causing the river to pour into the tunnels. The entire system was quickly flooded, including many basements that were still connected to it, causing millions of dollars in damage and disrupting utility service throughout the loop.

At that point, government agencies belatedly responded. The leak was stopped and the tunnels of water were emptied within days (at great cost). The tunnels are still used for power and communication cables.

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