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Soaked

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You’ll have heard how the city once ended in fire, and around these parts, it threatens to end in ice every few years or so. But once, not too long ago, Chicago flirted with ending in water, an entirely preventable man-made inundation that few saw but everybody felt – a two-billion-dollar sucker-punch tsunami that weighed in among the dozenmost costly floods in American history.

The groundwork for the Great Flood of 1992 was laid a century before, when the Illinois (later Chicago)Tunnel Company built a series of semi-official, semi-clandestine tunnels under almost every street downtown. The tunnels were only supposed to house telephone cables, but in a nice Pynchonian twist, the operators covertly decided to install a narrow-gauge railway for delivering freight, as well. 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.

In fact – show me another city so coarse and strong and cunning! – all the phone cables came right out again, just half a dozen years later, leaving the several dozenmiles of illegal underground railroad system to haul coal, ashes and freight to and from buildings all over the downtown. When the tunnel company finally went bust after another forty years, they abandoned the tunnels, which fell into limbo. Because the passages violated all kinds of private property lines, nobody really owned them and the city never assumed full responsibility. Now cut to September 1991, when another semi-regulated private company was driving piles into the Chicago River (the river that this city, in one of history’s all-time mind-boggling engineering feats, persuaded to run backwards).The dolphin pilings were supposed to keep barges and tourist boats from smacking into the foundations of theKinzie Street drawbridge. But somebody forgot to remind the piledrivers about the long-neglected passages honeycombing not far below, and a misgauged piling compromised the walls of a tunnel directly under the river.

Now comes the distinctive Chicagoan twist: cable television workers down in the tunnels a couple of months later actually saw them leak, videotaped it oozingmud and water, and sent the urgent evidenceto City Hall.The staff of Mayor Daley – Hizzoner the Second – promptly set out…to take bids from other private companies, to see who could patch things up the most cheaply.Three months later, the tunnel walls at last collapsed, and overnight the river came pouring in.

The abandoned freight tunnels filled quickly, soon taking in about a quarter of a billion gallons.Water passed easily through old concrete barriers and soon began to fill the city’s subway system tunnels as well. Businesses that had forgotten about their illegal freight-tunnel hook-ups a half a century earlierwere shocked to find their foundations filling with up to forty feet of water.The power grid began to short out, the Board ofTrade and Mercantile Exchange suspended trading when waters began to percolate up through their basements, and the entire downtown and financial district were eventually shut down and evacuated.

Weirdly, at street level, there was no trace of the subterranean deluge.Only this once in a lifetime thing,water flowing underground…

City officials scrambled to find the cause, nobody quite piecing the flood together with the video reports frommonths before.Work crews began shutting down the city’s largest water mains, trying to stop the surging tide, but only compounding the disastrous loss of utilities and services. Meanwhile, WMAQ radio’s night-time crime reporter, tipped off to the fact that the aquarium seemed to have relocated to the basement of the Merchandise Mart, went on air early that morning, saying:

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 am hearing reports that fish are swimming in the basement of the Mart just feet from the swirl! I do not see any emergency crews near this spinning swirl, but I think theymay want to take a look. In fact I think someone should wake up the Mayor!

The city emergency teams showed up at the swirling bathtub drain shortly thereafter.

But it took three days, sealing off and lowering the Chicago River; dumping sixty-five truckloads of rock, cement andmattresses into the now-gaping hole; and punching a release sluice from the flooded clandestine tunnels into the Chicago Deep Tunnel system at massive expense before the downtown drained out enough for life to resume. Some skyscrapers stayed closed for weeks.The full, compounded costs of the disaster are impossible to calculate, but the wrangling over insurance and legal responsibility, needless to say, went on for years.

And the Pynchonian secret-freight tunnels?They stayed popular well into the twenty-first century with the real-life Dungeons and Dragons urban-explorer set, who used them to go spelunking and building-hacking. Then a terrorist threat from a deranged member of the Chicago Urban Exploration club led to the tunnels’ final sealing a few years ago. But the sixty miles of twisting passageways are still down there, awaiting their accidental rediscovery by some unwitting private company half a century from now. Until then My Kind of Town stands ready again for any fresh elemental disaster, forever bareheaded, shovelling,wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding… Okay: maybe a little light on the planning.