Remembering the Great Chicago Flood, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago this week, Chicago experienced a disaster of its infrastructure when workers in the Chicago River accidentally sent water from the river rushing through a network of underground tunnels, producing massive flooding in the Loop.  This week, the Tribune remembers the Great Chicago Flood of 1992.

On that Monday, April 13, 1992, many Chicagoans learned for the first time of the miles of freight tunnels honeycombing downtown. As Loop basements filled with water and emptied of people in a mostly invisible urban disaster, the heads started rolling and the cleanup bills piled up. An embarrassed Mayor Richard M. Daley immediately blamed a bungling city bureaucracy, and indeed it was revealed that city officials had had at least a month to fix the leak but failed to act in time. It took four days to plug the leak and weeks to pump out the waterlogged basements, subbasements and sub-subbasements, like those at Marshall Field, Carson Pirie Scott, 29 E. Madison St. and DePaul University.

But imagine Daley’s shock if he or his staff hadn’t known about the tunnels at all. That’s what happened to Mayor Carter Harrison II at the turn of the last century.

See, the tunnels themselves were an audacious, legally suspect land grab by a wealthy businessman who received city permission to lay telephone wires under the Loop and parlayed that into constructing an extensive underground railroad.

In March 1899 the Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Co. and its president, Albert Wheeler, received a 30-year lease “to construct and operate in all the streets, avenues, alleys, and tunnels and other public places of the city … conduits and wires or other electrical conductors … for the transmission of sound signals by means of electricity or otherwise.”[….]

…Could it happen again? Not likely. After the 1992 flood, massive concrete bulkheads were installed at the 30 spots where the tunnels intersect the river.

Read the entire article for more on the elaborate political scheming that produced the tunnel system. This failure of urban infrastructure relates to Roosevelt University seminars, including, SUST 220 Water and SUST 320 Sprawl, Transportation, and Planning (each offered as a hybrid course meeting several Saturdays and online, with select field trips — with a schedule coordinated so you can take both courses at once without worry of conflict). If you are interested in taking these or any of our courses this summer or fall, please contact your RU academic advisor for registration details. If you are not currently a Roosevelt University student, we encourage you to investigate our degree options and our course listings. For more information, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, our Facebook page, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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