Chicago’s Freight Subway Does the Work of 5000 Trucks (Nov, 1929)

Wow, I had no idea this existed, it reminds me of the system they have at Disney World. It seems like a really useful idea for a big city. Apparently it went under, so to speak, in 1959.

Chicago’s Freight Subway Does the Work of 5000 Trucks

ONLY one out of a thousand residents of Chicago realizes that his city has an extensive subway system. No people ride in this subway, however, except the operators of the trains, for it is purely a freight subway. The photo above gives some idea of how the loop district is undermined by a network of tunnels; practically every department store and large business establishment has underground connections with the freight subway. Deliveries are made directly from the railroad freight yards to the underground receiving rooms of store buildings. The freight subway, with its 150 electric locomotives and its 3,300 freight cars, handles a volume of tonnage each day equivalent to that carried by 5,000 motor trucks.

  1. cubejockey says: March 6, 20084:20 am

    Didnt the collapse of one of these caused that great chicago flood a decade ago (1990?)

  2. capsule says: March 6, 20087:03 am

    Some European governments are planning similar networks for the near future:


  3. Steve Brewer says: March 6, 20087:05 am

    A good overview is available here:


  4. artation says: March 6, 20087:11 am

    The system has not been used for many years, although an unconfirmed rumor claims that a tour is given to a very select group of train enthusiasts once a year.

    It was indeed a collapse of one of these old tunnels that caused some flooding in the early 90’s.

    Check out… or Google “chicago freight tunnel system”

  5. pete says: March 6, 20089:13 am

    Re: Chicago Flood. Yes and no. They were driving pilings into the Chicago River to protect one of the bridges and the pilings pushed through the tunnel roof. So yes, it did collapse, but with the assistance of a large object being shoved into it.

  6. Steve says: March 6, 20089:38 am


    The floodwaters did enter through one of these tunnels, but the hole was caused by a bridge piling damaging the tunnel. The underlying problem was that these tunnels weren’t properly documented or surveyed.

  7. J says: March 6, 200810:40 am

    I remember the flood, I just started college @ Univ of IL at Chicago and interned downtown. Yeah, it was the piling driven into the riverbed. The city dumped a ton of rocks to seal the hole at the river. What was interesting was how some flooded businesses were finding fish in their basements.

    Most of the tunnel system is now used for cabling – power and communications. Few adventurers know of undocumented entrances.

  8. Bill says: March 6, 200811:40 am

    Actually, the tunnel itself was not collapsed. It was drilled into by a dredging company and promptly flooded a large part of the downtown area. I was working downtown at the time and actually riding the local commuter train right near where the drilling mishap occurred.

  9. Stannous says: March 6, 200812:47 pm

    Any city dweller who has tried to use public transit or drive in their downtown area would love to see a similar system in place. In SF they’re considering adding a fee to downtown usage during rush hour sort of like what no exists in London.

  10. Bill says: March 6, 20081:37 pm

    I hear Chicago is also considering the rush-hour tax because of London. Unlike London however, we do not have the infrastructure to provide alternatives.

  11. Ed T. says: March 6, 200811:04 pm

    This is brilliant! Too bad it’s not in use any more. I wonder if this is where Disney got the idea?

  12. SteveH says: March 7, 20085:27 am

    Heh, London doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide alternatives either – the Tube is way too hot in the summer, and packed for most of the day, and the busses are stuck in traffic too. The city does make a lot of money from all the £8/day (about $15) fees though, and even more on fines from people who forget to pay.

    London also had an underground freight railway – to carry mail. It was inuse around 10 years ago, but I’m not sure if it’s running anymore.

    There’s some pictures here: http://www.railfaneurop…

  13. Chris says: March 7, 20088:31 am

    It’s kinda weird that my Dad had left the construction company involved just weeks before that happened. He even knew the guy who said there wasn’t a tunnel there.

  14. secret says: March 9, 20086:19 pm

    figures. this is why uk invested soo much in completely tracking every car on the road… so they could tax it. its time to down that government, they are getting out of control, no reasonable person would want to live in a place like that. they replaced a king with tyrant

  15. Jack Bewildered says: April 1, 200811:55 pm

    C’mon, secret. If you drive, do you know the costs you are imposing on the breathing and the environment when you drive? Not to mention the amount you are costing people in terms of lost time and emissions by being a part of a snarling peak hour traffic jam not going anywhere? You’re not even close to paying that off by paying the charge. You even get a benefit from paying the charge if you still choose to drive, less traffic. So what if they tax cars? I’m more pissed at having to pay taxes to pay for wars to get cheaper oil for those cars. The money might as well go to more efficient public transportation. Its a shame Chicago can barely keep its CTA afloat.

  16. Mark Blossom says: April 15, 200811:12 pm

    This excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle casts a different light on the project:

    So within half an hour he was at work, far underneath the streets of
    the city. The tunnel was a peculiar one for telephone wires; it was
    about eight feet high, and with a level floor nearly as wide. It had
    innumerable branches—a perfect spider web beneath the city; Jurgis
    walked over half a mile with his gang to the place where they were to
    work. Stranger yet, the tunnel was lighted by electricity, and upon it
    was laid a double-tracked, narrow-gauge railroad!

    But Jurgis was not there to ask questions, and he did not give the
    matter a thought. It was nearly a year afterward that he finally
    learned the meaning of this whole affair. The City Council had passed
    a quiet and innocent little bill allowing a company to construct
    telephone conduits under the city streets; and upon the strength of
    this, a great corporation had proceeded to tunnel all Chicago with a
    system of railway freight-subways. In the city there was a combination
    of employers, representing hundreds of millions of capital, and formed
    for the purpose of crushing the labor unions. The chief union which
    troubled it was the teamsters’; and when these freight tunnels were
    completed, connecting all the big factories and stores with the
    railroad depots, they would have the teamsters’ union by the throat.
    Now and then there were rumors and murmurs in the Board of Aldermen,
    and once there was a committee to investigate—but each time another
    small fortune was paid over, and the rumors died away; until at last
    the city woke up with a start to find the work completed. There was a
    tremendous scandal, of course; it was found that the city records had
    been falsified and other crimes committed, and some of Chicago’s big
    capitalists got into jail—figuratively speaking. The aldermen declared
    that they had had no idea of it all, in spite of the fact that the
    main entrance to the work had been in the rear of the saloon of one of

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