Bruce Moffat was in college when he got his first look at Chicago’s underworld. Moffat’s father was a night watchman at Marshall Field’s, and during a shift he took his son into the engine room to show him an entrance leading to the network of tunnels beneath the Loop. Up until the middle of the century the tunnels were used for tiny electric railcars that delivered freight and coal to the basements of downtown buildings, including Field’s. By the time Moffat saw them, in the 1970s, they had long been abandoned. Still, Moffat, a lifelong rail buff, was fascinated, and started digging.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is pretty picky about who it allows into this deep-down town. Moffat has been taken underground 25 times. He believes he’s seen 30 of the 45 miles of catacombs, which were dug beneath the district bounded by Roosevelt, Halsted, Chicago, and the lake. The trip–which requires a hard hat, rubber boots, and a flashlight–is a lot like spelunking.

There’s only a short section that has working lights, says Moffat, who also satisfies his passion for trains as a transportation manager for the CTA. “Most of it is absolutely unlit. You learn what true darkness is. It’s like a cave, only a bit more confined. The distances are more exaggerated. You walk and walk and walk and find out you haven’t gone a city block.”

The copper wire that carried power to the trains has been carried off and sold, but steel rails are still embedded in the concrete floor. During his explorations, Moffat has found other relics of the underground railroad, including an engine car, which ended up at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. Moffat also took home a trolley wire hanger, which conducted electricity to the engine car. It now shares space with the model trains and railroad books filling his apartment.

“The interesting thing for me was finding the area that was used as the maintenance shop, near Union Station,” Moffat says. “Several large rooms. There were hoists, pits. There was just a catacomb of connecting tunnels, some that had been turned into locker rooms, storage and wash rooms.”

The tunnels were dug in the late 19th century as conduits for telephone wires, but were quickly adopted as a way to reduce traffic congestion caused by deliveries to stores downtown. Only one other city has a system remotely like Chicago’s: London has a network of tunnels for carrying mail. British postal officials came here in 1911 to see how ours worked before they began digging.

Eventually businesses found it cheaper to receive coal by truck. The railcars still hauled away cinders until 1959, and then the tunnels were closed and forgotten. The tunnels made news again when they filled with water during the Great Loop Flood of 1992, caused when a bridge piling broke through a wall. Buildings that had never bothered to seal off their tunnel connections found themselves with basements full of water.

Although they no longer host rail traffic, the tunnels aren’t entirely obsolete, Moffat says. “There’s a fair amount being used for utilities,” he says. “Commonwealth Edison has high-voltage electric conduits. Some companies have fiber optics. So in an odd twist, it’s back to what it was originally intended for.”

Moffat’s book on the underground system, Forty Feet Below: The Story of Chicago’s Freight Tunnels, was published in1982. He’s done some more research since then and is working on a new version that’s due out late next year. If you can’t wait to learn more about Chicago’s catacombs, he’ll give a slide show Friday at 7:30 at a meeting of the Central Electric Railfans Association. It’s in the second-floor auditorium at 205 W. Wacker. Admission is $5. Call 312-829-4500.

–Ted Kleine

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.