Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Great Loop Flood, 25 years on

     My first thought was: A bomb went off.
     An atomic bomb, maybe. Why else would thousands of office workers be evacuating the Loop at midday?
     The truth — not that we knew it right away — was far less cataclysmic but in a sense even stranger.

     It was noon, and I was getting ready to head downtown for the 2-to-10 p.m. shift as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. I turned on the TV in that pre-Internet era, and the noon news showed workers carrying files, streaming from buildings downtown.
     In September 1991, workers aboard a “spud scow” from the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company had been on the Chicago River, replacing rotten pilings — those wooden poles driven into the river bottom to protect the foundations of drawbridges from errant boats — at the southeast end of the Kinzie Street bridge.
     Putting new pilings exactly where the rotted ones proved difficult. The bridge tender’s house was in the way. So they moved the new pilings — wooden telephone poles chained together — about a yard south. Just enough of a shift — by a foot, it was later estimated — that it cracked the ceiling of the network of tunnels that crisscross downtown underground.
     The arched tunnels were hand-dug around 1900 ....

To continue reading, click here.

J.J. Madia, the city employee in charge of making sure the tunnels never flood again. 


  1. Absolutely fantastic article! What I remember most was that you could delay filing your tax return ( assuming a work or home address I the city) just by writing CHICAGO FLOOD at the top!

  2. A wonderful evocation of "the city that works." You surely didn't whip this up overnight. Too bad an abbreviated version can't appear in the paper.

    I was out of town when it happened and recall reading newspaper accounts that made it sound, in those innocent days,like 9-11. As memory serves, there was no loss of life.


    1. Thanks, but it WILL be in the paper. Running over three pages Sunday, or so I am told.

  3. I was home on disability, laughing as my wife walked in the door.

  4. Remarkably in-depth coverage of a major event revealing a city's vulnerability and the consequences of poor judgment. It could've happened anywhere, but it happened in my city, and with all the difficulties I'm proud of how Chicago dealt with this near disaster. We come together in these crises with the best of them.

    Glad this will get the proper coverage in Sunday's paper; I'm thinking Neil would've been a heck of an investigative reporter.


  5. Great stuff, Neil.

    Only in Chicago could a flood happen because of a hole punched into the bottom of a river.

  6. I saw a fish in a tank in an office, that was pulled out of the sub-basement of the Stevens Building.
    I also remember that the engineer that was fired took his film of the problems in the tunnel, before the flood, to be developed at Walgreen's or some other commercial lab, instead of the city's own photo lab, which delayed things even more.

  7. Great article! It seems to me the Army Corp of Engineers should have been contacted immediately, instead of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to stop the leak. My impression at the time.

  8. That was a strange few days. I was living there then, up near Boys Town and working out by the airport, and if I could scrape out the extra time I'd take an O'Hare downtown and then either a Howard or Ravenswood train up to Belmont. It didn't work out very well that day, though.

  9. No subways for quite a while...a couple of weeks if I recall correctly. Ninety minutes from Main Street in South Evanston to LaSalle and Van Buren. Two hours on the worst days. Not as bad coming home because commuters could adjust their quitting times. No subway tunnels at all until 1943 and after. Far fewer private autos during the Depression and the war, gas rationing, and many more scheduled trains because the daily ridership was at least double what it was in 1992, maybe triple...didn't look up the figures. To be quite honest, I don't know how the hell they did it, back in the day.


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