Skip

The Great Chicago Flood of 1992
April 13, 2012 1:27 PM   Subscribe

"I have found something very interesting in the Chicago River on the east side of the Kinzie Bridge. I see swirling water that looks like a giant drain... I would say it looks like the source of the water could be the river itself, and I am hearing reports that fish are swimming in the basement of the [Merchandise] Mart just feet from the swirl! I do not see any emergency crews near this spinning swirl, but I think they may want to take a look. In fact, I think someone should wake up the Mayor!"
Twenty years ago today was the Great Chicago Flood. About 250,000,000 gallons of the Chicago River found its way--via a breach caused by construction near the all-but-forgotten tunnels of the Chicago Tunnel Company--into the basements of Chicago's Loop business district. It even sent fish up into the Pedway.

The flooding resulted in the evacuation of the Loop and shutdown of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The cleanup took weeks, and estimates of the total flood damages ran around $1.95 billion.

Of course, how the tunnels came to be (back at the turn of the 20th century) is quite a tale in itself: "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."

The Chicago Tribune has a slideshow, as does the Huffington Post. [Previously]
posted by theoddball (41 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, I remember watching the department of streets and sanitation try throwing a door into the river, thinking (according to the news, anyway) that it would lay on top of the hole and be pushed into place by the water pressure. Yeah.
posted by davejay at 1:29 PM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, and if memory serves, a company that was supposed to be replacing the bridge pilings (the round groups of wood keeping boats from hitting the bridge abutments) just hammered the old ones under the surface of the water instead, and put the new ones nearby. Presumably that of those pilings that were hammered down, one of them pierced the tunnels, and that's where the swirl began. But that may have been rumor and speculation.
posted by davejay at 1:32 PM on April 13, 2012


More about the Chicago Tunnel Company Railway.*

*The canonical site on this topic recently went offline thanks to AT&T sunsetting Ameritech personal web pages; I just contacted the original owner to see if he'll let me put it back online in a form other than archive.org grabs.
posted by me3dia at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chicago: where the rivers leak and the bridges fall up.
posted by xil at 1:41 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Closer to 40 years ago, crews digging underneath (or so they thought) a section of the original Erie Canal in Bushnells Basin, NY managed instead to drill into the canal and drain it for miles.

Whenever you hear about construction near large bodies of water, anywhere, make sure your flood insurance is paid up.
posted by tommasz at 1:41 PM on April 13, 2012


The Chicago Tunnel Company system is absolutely fascinating (carved out entirely by guys with knives). Unfortunately you can't get into them anymore, ever since the nefarious plot of Dr. Chaos was foiled.
posted by theodolite at 1:47 PM on April 13, 2012


Don't forget Lake Peigneur.
posted by HuronBob at 1:49 PM on April 13, 2012


It even sent fish up into the Pedway.

Protip: Parts of the Chicago Pedway, particularly those around City Hall, actually close at 6pm. It turns out that there's at least one 30-foot length of Pedway just to the west of City Hall that closes at both ends, such that if, say, you and your wife happen to be walking through the Pedway at approximately 5:58 pm on a Tuesday, it is entirely possible to find yourself locked inside a short underground tunnel with no cell phone reception and incapable of getting out, the walls slowly closing in on you, the mute immobile revolving doors at either end staring at your futile efforts to escape.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:52 PM on April 13, 2012 [29 favorites]


Geez, shakespeherian, how did you get out?

(Also this is a great post. Bookmarked for later perusal!)
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:00 PM on April 13, 2012


Better a Tuesday than a Friday.
posted by double block and bleed at 2:02 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well so the Pedway has security cameras, but no amount of waving and hollering at said cameras has any noticeable effect. Imagine waving at camera for ten minutes. You have no choice but to picture one of those security rooms from films where the lazy security guard watches a basketball game on a portable teevee while ignoring the leather-clad assassins climbing into the Smithsonian.

So this stretch of Pedway has two staircases-- one on either side, the length of the tunnel running about six feet or so below the basement level of the buildings which bracket it. Picture a horizontally elongated U. Each staircase has a little enclosed lift alongside it (thanks ADA!) and eventually what with there being nothing else beside blank walls and long hallways where no one answers your fevered pounding, you finally look in the lift and there's a direct-dial phone there For Emergencies Only. As soon as you pick it up it rings someone... somewhere... who answers and says in a bored tone, without waiting, 'Hold on,' and then there's the sound of being transferred and another ringing and eventually a man answers who sounds like his shift is almost over and he says, 'Security' and you try to describe your situation and where you are: 'There's a part of the Pedway that's west of City Hall...' 'West of City Hall?' and you wonder if the guy on the other end is even in this zip code. There's no location-specific information in the lift by the emergency phone except the address of City Hall, which, like a moron, you read off to the security guy on the phone. You realize that this probably does not make you sound less like a prank caller. 'Hold on,' he says, and then -- click.

Your wife looks at you and says 'What happened?' and you say 'I think he's coming down?' and she says 'From which side?' and you aren't even sure. There are buildings on either side of you and you can't see one side from the other, because of the U-shape of the tunnel. The ceiling is in the way. So your wife goes over to the far end and you stay here by this side, the City Hall side, and periodically you and your wife call to one another-- 'Anything yet?' 'No'-- and at one point a woman comes down to the soda machine on the other side of the locked glass door on your wife's side and your wife tries to communicate to her and the woman (reportedly) gives her a funny look and then leaves. You are beginning to think no one's coming.

You've been down here half an hour. That isn't much time, but it's a lot of time when it might be the beginning of all night. You wonder what it would take to break a giant pane of tempered (tempered?) glass. You have a satchel with a Murakami novel in it, and your wife has an umbrella. You go back into the lift (you have to call it with a weird rocker switch on the wall) and pick up the emergency phone again and the same bored woman -- 'Hold on' -- transfers you without caring much and you wait and hope it isn't the same end-of-shift guy although maybe that would help.

Another man answers and he sounds younger, with a bit more energy. This is a good thing. You try again to explain the situation -- 'We got locked in the Pedway just west of City Hall,' doing your best not to sound teenagery or prankish. The guy responds with 'Okay I'm going to walk down there and take a look' and you and your wife re-assume your positions at opposite ends of the tunnel and only about thirty seconds later you see, through your own locked glass door, a door swing open and a 20s-something guy walks out and looks unphased by you and you call your wife and she comes running and the guy unlocks the door for you and even holds the door open, like you're coming into his hotel or something, and you feel like the strangest sort of idiot and try to explain yourself again and he says 'No, when they say six, they mean it' and you're on your way but when you have to go down below street level to get to the Blue Line home you really, really don't want to.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:25 PM on April 13, 2012 [106 favorites]


Also, this resulted in a seminal U.S. Supreme Court admiralty jurisdiction case known as Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995).

I read this case like once a year, so it's neat to have some more factual background than what's briefly recited in the opinion. Cool!
posted by resurrexit at 2:28 PM on April 13, 2012


Thanks for the post, I was living in Chicago at the time and hadn't been reminded of this in years.
posted by djseafood at 2:44 PM on April 13, 2012


shakespeherian: "... the walls slowly closing in on you, the mute immobile revolving doors at either end staring at your futile efforts to escape."

3PO? 3PO! Shut off all trash compactors on the detention level!

I can't believe this was 20 years ago. I feel so old.
posted by double block and bleed at 2:54 PM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm vaguely stunned that this was twenty years ago. It feels much more recent than that.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:56 PM on April 13, 2012


So, say you have a fish on a pedway ...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:00 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chicago: where the rivers leak and the bridges fall up.

I happened to be in the Loop the day this happened, on a high school field trip. I saw the car mentioned in that story up close -- for some reason they didn't have it cordoned off. Really bizarre.
posted by me3dia at 3:09 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


For those who would like to read a fictionalized account of this incident and who enjoy a good whodunit, the Great Chicago Flood is the backdrop for Sara Paretsky's 1994 mystery novel Tunnel Vision.
posted by treefort at 3:21 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was in third grade when this happened, and I remember we had a Chicago firefighter (Or maybe some other official from the city) come and talk to our class about the flood. I clearly remember asking him how much water was lost, and he very dismissively said, "as much water that was left in the shoes at Marshall Fields." I remember thinking what dick he was, because that was a legit question! And this post has answered it for me. Thanks! Its funny the things you dont forget.
posted by Sreiny at 4:17 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


davejay: The "breach" link goes to a structuremag.org article on the mechanics of the tunnel failure, fascinating stuff.
posted by hattifattener at 4:32 PM on April 13, 2012


This was seriously the most exciting two years of my six year old life. Then, Bill Kurtis did a program about it and I spent years wanting to be a structural engineer because they interviewed a structural engineer about designing the plug and he had a graphing calculator and a cool graphic to explain something about how much pressure water exerts. Then, ten years later, I realize I didn't want to be an engineer as it'd be rather dull and decided I wanted to be a mathematician instead. It's a little worrying how influential some people not looking where they were drilling was on my life.
posted by hoyland at 4:34 PM on April 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Er two days of my life
posted by hoyland at 4:34 PM on April 13, 2012


yeah dude, Bill Kurtis. I hear his voice and I'm instantly a little kid watching local news at the dinner table. I wonder how many people watching those true-crime shows or whatever on cable know who he is, even. and yeah I remember this mostly for it flooding out Marshall Fields, a place I grew up in because my mom worked there.

and davejay, that just seems so logical, knowing Chicago and its infamous construction-politics-kickbacks history. that city loves to pay the guys with trucks to not do anything even remotely properly or efficiently.
posted by ninjew at 5:49 PM on April 13, 2012


The crazy part was watching it all unfold real-time. Helicopter shots of the Chicago River going down the drain, the mayor and various serious people peering in, the mattresses getting thrown in, and then what seemed like for days afterwards, reports of basement bulkheads starting to leak in various points around the loop. (seemingly) every couple of hours there would be a flash update about how a steel door behind a filing cabinet in the basement (with a sign saying "Beware of the Leopard") of the Gradument building was suddenly oozing water.

The other cool thing is that this reminds me of just how built up the city is. If you are driving through the city, it seems mostly flat. But then you end up at Michigan and Wacker, and the river is like 30 feet below you. And the river is a good 4 feet above the lake. So these basements must be pretty damned deep.
posted by gjc at 7:07 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


THE MATTRESSES. I forgot about that part.. wow. like, that was something that happened, that real professional people with jobs threw mattresses in a hole in the river.
posted by ninjew at 7:13 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


you have a satchel with a murakami novel in it and your wife has an umbrella

dude, that story is itself a murakami novel. next time you decide to enter a subterranean tunnel connecting the mundane world to a quietly horrifying alternate conception of reality, bring a baseball batt.
posted by eurypteris at 7:27 PM on April 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Off topic, but why the heck are the photos in the slideshow black & white and look like they're from the 40s? I swear, there's a vast conspiracy to make all old media look old-timey whether it was or not.
posted by Ickster at 7:43 PM on April 13, 2012


The other cool thing is that this reminds me of just how built up the city is. If you are driving through the city, it seems mostly flat. But then you end up at Michigan and Wacker, and the river is like 30 feet below you. And the river is a good 4 feet above the lake. So these basements must be pretty damned deep.

As I recall, they were sub-basements and sub-sub-basements. I remember being amazed that such things existed.

Anyway, was I was actually going to say was that I was on the Megabus today (so it was probably Jackson and Wacker) and it was the most bizarre thing to see Upper Wacker removed and to see down into Lower Wacker from the upper deck of a bus. Once you get further north, I think street level is actually what you'd think it is, but I have no idea how that works. Magic, I guess. (Actually... isn't the Merchandise Mart sort of visibly built up? If you go to where Orleans dead ends, you're well below 'street level' from the Mart's perspective.)
posted by hoyland at 7:48 PM on April 13, 2012


The Chicago Pedway is the tits.
posted by Bonzai at 8:03 PM on April 13, 2012


ninjew: "that real professional people with jobs threw mattresses in a hole in the river."

I thought that was gonna work. I just thinking about how glad I was to be living in the suburbs where it was nice and dry.
posted by Bonzai at 8:06 PM on April 13, 2012


why the heck are the photos in the slideshow black & white and look like they're from the 40s?

This is one of those times where we need someone authoritative to come along, but I think it's within the realm of possibility that Tribune photographers were shooting black and white at the time. This suggests that people were shooting 'mostly color' by the 1990s, but that means they were still shooting black and white sometimes. As a technical consideration, I think it would have been easier to shoot black and white in some of the tunnels and basements, given that the power was likely out and whatever lights were brought in might look funny on film (fluorescent lights go a bit green, for instance, so you need flash). The Huffington Post link has photos from the AP, who were apparently shooting in color.

Of course, we could write to Charles Osgood and ask if he remembers a) if they were shooting black and white and b) why.
posted by hoyland at 8:26 PM on April 13, 2012


Having been around a few newspapers in the early to mid-90s my perception was that you only shot color if it was going to be on the front page on Sunday. Otherwise, we stocked T-max and Tri-X in our camera bags.

Back then, we still did our own darkroom work and it was far easier to scare up a decent print to go with your story with ten minutes to go to deadline if you could touch it up with farmer's reducer or a high contrast filter in b&w as opposed to the technical skill required to get a good, clear, color transparency straight out of the tank with Ektar or Fuji.

Of course, I only worked for small-town papers so maybe Chicago reporters had other concerns...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:11 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


"3PO? 3PO! Shut off all trash compactors on the detention level!"

I can't believe this was 20 years ago. I feel so old.


Closer to forty than twenty, I daresay.
posted by davidpriest.ca at 10:13 PM on April 13, 2012


1992 was a crazy year in Chicago. I remember both incidents like they were yesterday.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:31 PM on April 13, 2012


clearly remember asking him how much water was lost

Well, seriously, no water was "lost". Anything coming out of the Chicago River is ultimately coming from Lake Michigan, and believe you me, the lake didn't miss it. I suppose you could calculate some general back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much water temporarily resided in Loop basements, but it was all eventually pumped back out into the Chicago River system (or maybe some of it went to Deep Tunnel for a while, that was a solution offered up, even though the system wasn't fully ready for operations). Eventually it all went down to the Illinois River and thence the Mississippi and Gulf, of course.

So I can understand his frustration at answering the question. It was a good kid question, but not easily answered.

Oh, and if memory serves, a company that was supposed to be replacing the bridge pilings (the round groups of wood keeping boats from hitting the bridge abutments) just hammered the old ones under the surface of the water instead, and put the new ones nearby. Presumably that of those pilings that were hammered down, one of them pierced the tunnels, and that's where the swirl began. But that may have been rumor and speculation.

Well, it seems from the federal trial that they did recover the old pilings, and of course the tunnel did not flood for months after that work damaged its structural integrity. It wasn't that they put the pilings too deep per se, it was that they didn't do due diligence about what might be underneath the river. Because of course there was a railroad tunnel connected to practically every major building in the Loop. Really, in the end, it was a joint and several liability issue, and the city had basically assumed ownership and maintenance responsibility without considering the risk and without marking the tunnels or keeping proper comprehensive maps.

Note that the city paid up. It was, in many ways, their fault, and even after learning the tunnels were leaking they moved with bureaucratic sloth disguised as caution. It should have been treated as an emergency and, had it been, no damage to the city would have really happened. It could have at least been contained to the damaged section.

From Granta:
The dirt hauled out of the tunnels filled in the lakefront and formed all the land now under Grant Park, the Field Museum, Soldier Field and McCormick Place. You’d think that amount of landfill ought to have tipped off more than a few officials that something besides phone cables was going in underground.

I wondered how much it could have contributed. Much of today's Grant Park already existed -- the original Art Institute was built in the 1890s, on fill between the original shoreline and the railroad tracks. A quick calculation shows that the area of Grant Park is about 800,000 m2, while the length of the tunnel system, some 100km, and about 2m x 2m in size, yields about 400,000 cubic meters of fill -- enough for about 1.5 feet of fill per square meter (or a full meter of fill if you assume only about half the park needed it). So pretty significant. But it wouldn't have been sufficient on its own for the rest down by Soldier Field and McCormick Place.

As I recall, they were sub-basements and sub-sub-basements. I remember being amazed that such things existed.

Yeah, the entire Loop is pretty much built on fill because it was originally a marsh. To build anything substantial you have to drive deep foundational pilings. I was lucky enough to see one of the holes built up close when I was working nearby, and it was pretty deep -- maybe 5-6 stories -- despite proximity to the river. I expect, as with the World Trade Center "bathtub", there was some mitigation of leakage that was done.

And of course, the older buildings that the tunnels directly served were connected. In some cases I believe they had to themselves "tunnel down" to connect, much as the Museum of Science and Industry connection was essentially a railcar elevator.

Anyhoo, I wasn't working downtown then, so it was all TV and hearsay for me. One of the few visible remnants I remember was a section of replaced -- and mismatched -- floor tile in the Thompson Center.
posted by dhartung at 11:30 PM on April 13, 2012


Wait, wait, wait, something's alive in the Chicago river?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:03 AM on April 14, 2012


shakespeherian: I HAVE GOTTEN TRAPPED IN THAT SAME PART OF THE PEDWAY, but only for about 10 minutes. Of all the things that government is inefficient about, why can't the time that they lock the doors on you be one of them?
posted by phunniemee at 12:38 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


WE ARE CLOSER THAN BLOOD BROTHERS
posted by shakespeherian at 1:45 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Richard Powers wrote about the "swirling bathtub drain" in the river in Granta's awesome Chicago issue.
posted by AceRock at 5:25 PM on April 14, 2012


I was working downtown at 1 S. Wacker when this happened. Eventually they let us go home early (yay!), but everyone else was trying to get out at the same time, so it took forever to get home (boo!). Can't believe it's been 20 years.

dhartung's comment about the landfill in the Grant Park area reminded me of how my friends & I used to go climbing through the mountains of fill that were moved during the re-routing of Lake Shore Drive by the Field Museum in the early 90s. We found & collected lots of old bottles in good condition; one of my friends found a bottle of some cosmetic/moisturizer that still had the original liquid in it.
posted by mogget at 9:45 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


... it was the most bizarre thing to see Upper Wacker removed and to see down into Lower Wacker from the upper deck of a bus.

That's whack(er).

I was living in England when this happened and I have no recollection of hearing about it, despite my favorite aunt still living in downtown Chicago at the time. Excuse me while I use this an an excuse to send her an email.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:49 AM on April 16, 2012


« Older Venus, Retouched   |   LEGO Science Fiction Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post