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IRM Goes Underground
From Rail & Wire Issue 162, November 1996

by Les Ascher and Dave Diamond

Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive 508 emerges from its tomb
Al Choutka holds the tag line as Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive 508 emerges from its tomb beneath Lake Shore Drive. Andy Sunderland waits to receive the tag line as Dave Diamond preps the IRM truck. Photo by John Weinstein
Museum visitors often ask us: "Where did you dig that thing up?" Well, as mentioned briefly in the last issue of Rail & Wire, on Wednesday, August 7, 1996 an IRM crew literally "dug up" some historic railroad equipment, extracting the last accessible rolling stock of the Chicago Tunnel Company from under Lake Shore Drive near Chicago's Grant Park.

The story of this unique rescue operation is a fine example of the ingenuity and persistence of IRM volunteers. This project required careful planning and persistence ... it took 18 years!

Soon after the turn of the century, a technological wonder was carved into the blue clay 40' below the streets of Chicago. A system of railroad tunnels unlike any other in the world was created under each downtown street, utilizing the most advanced construction techniques available at the time. By 1909, a 62-mile grid of intersecting freight tunnels connected all major railroad freight houses and many commercial establishments in downtown Chicago.

Operating more than 3,000 diminutive freight cars and 100-plus electric locomotives on this network of two-foot gauge track, the Chicago Tunnel Company moved coal, ash, and merchandise throughout downtown. In addition, millions of cubic yards of excavation debris and cinders were hauled to landfill sites through the tunnels, creating what is now known as Grant Park.

Although it was intimately connected with the political and engineering history of the City of Chicago from 1900 until abandonment in 1959, few people ever saw this system, and virtually no artifacts have been preserved. The existence of the old tunnels finally became big news in 1992, when a contractor knocked a hole into the side of one of the bores, allowing the Chicago River to flood the tunnels and thereby many building basements in the downtown business district and the CTA State Street subway.

Locomotive 508 resting against the north wall of the tunnel
Locomotive 508 resting against the north wall of the tunnel. The Museum crew needed to carefully drag the locomotive several hundred feet without hitting the waterline on the wall visible on the right. It wouldn't do to reenact the great Chicago Tunnel Company flood! Photo by Les Ascher
For those interested in this fascinating system, the story of the Chicago Tunnel Company is told in detail in Bruce Moffat's book, Forty Feet Below, available at the IRM bookstore.

In 1978, IRM members became aware that five cars and one electric locomotive remained intact, stranded in a short section of tunnel connecting to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. They were used to deliver coal and remove ash and cinders from The Field Museum's boiler room, which also supplied heat to the Shedd Aquarium and the Chicago Park District offices in Soldier Field.

Unlike most of the system's deeper tunnels, this 400' long section of tunnel had originally been built at ground level, beginning in about 1915. It extended east from a disposal station just east of the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. A connection was made with the rest of the tunnel system by means of elevators down to the normal 40' depth and then by tunnels under the IC tracks. For several years, what was to become Grant Park was being filled by material hauled through the Chicago Tunnel System and brought to the surface by these elevators. By 1921, Grant Park was filled to about 11' above this tunnel, the current grade of Lake Shore Drive.

The IRM rescue crew poses around the 508
The IRM rescue crew poses around the 508. They are joined by representatives of two of the many other organizations who assisted in the effort. From left to right they are (Front Row) Mike Ziak of Harbour Engineering and Mike DiPaolo, Carl Illwitzer, Dave Diamond and Al Choutka from IRM; (Second Row) Sam Polonetsky from the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, and Andy Sunderland and Les Ascher of IRM. Visible to the left is ash car 714. Collection of Les Ascher

In 1957, the entire Tunnel System was abandoned and the electricity was turned off, stranding the locomotive and five ash cars in this short section under Lake Shore Drive. The City of Chicago took control of the tunnels, and by 1959 a scrapper had disposed of most of the rolling stock and other valuable equipment, such as the copper trolley wire, in the main tunnel system. Later, the elevator hoist house was removed and the shafts were capped and covered over, but the equipment east of the elevators remained intact in the spur tunnel. We believe that no other cars from the tunnel system have been saved, other than the two flatcars removed by IRM personnel in 1983 from beneath the now- demolished Steele-Wedeles Warehouse (Rail & Wire; December, 1984). According to Bruce Moffat's book, the locomotive, number 508, is a 1906-1908 era Baldwin two-motor electric which ran on 250 volts DC. Two of the five ash cars are believed to be of similar vintage.

After learning of the existence of this equipment the Museum, with the cooperation of The Field Museum, the Chicago Historical Society, and the City of Chicago's Department of Public Works, began to survey the tunnel with the hope of rescuing the artifacts for future display. Although there was great interest in the project, resources were insufficient to fund an excavation. But throughout the past 18 years IRM kept in contact with The Field Museum and the City of Chicago about recovery of the equipment. Representatives of the City of Chicago and The Field Museum were always encouraging and supportive about our efforts to rescue it.

In mid-1995, the City of Chicago announced plans to relocate a section of Lake Shore Drive to a spot directly over the elevator shafts of the old disposal station. Les Ascher again contacted The Field Museum in September, 1995, to remind them of IRM's interest. In December, IRM President Kevin McCabe wrote to Mayor Richard M. Daley outlining the Museum's interest in the tunnel artifacts. In January 1996, the Chicago Department of Transportation's (CDOT) Commissioner Tom Walker and Chief Highway Engineer Tim Martin agreed to work with IRM to remove the equipment when the elevator shafts were exposed and opened up during construction.

CDOT Project Manager Richard Kinczyk, who was familiar with the tunnel and the cars, indicated that he would try to work IRM's project into the construction schedule. One contractor on the Lake Shore Drive project agreed to assist with lifting the locomotive if the shafts were opened. Everything looked positive, and members of the Museum's Building and Grounds Department began planning for the upcoming recovery. By early 1996 all arrangements were complete and the project seemed ready to start.

locomotive 508 and ash car 532 are exposed to the afternoon sun
Resembling a scene from an Indiana Jones movies, locomotive 508 and ash car 532 are exposed to the afternoon sun for the first time in many decades. Photo by Les Ascher

A close up of the ash car reveals its deteriorated condition
A close up of the ash car reveals its deteriorated condition. Museum members shoveled out the ash before risking a lift out of the tunnel. Photo by Bob Roberts

However in early May, we learned that the contractor had reevaluated the structural soundness of the elevator shaft and decided that they would not need to remove the cap, thus saving much work and money. This meant that the tunnel would not be opened and the Tunnel Company equipment would not be accessible. The contractors, engineers, and CDOT seemed to be genuinely disappointed, as they too were eager to see this rare equipment rescued and preserved. Disappointment did not adequately describe the feelings of the IRM team!

Dave Diamond, refusing to give up hope, kept discussing alternative possibilities with various people. In mid-July, Dave learned from Pat Kielty of Teng & Associates (one of the engineering firms on the Lake Shore Drive project) that the elevator shaft cap might need to be reinforced. A quick call to CDOT's Rich Kinczyk indicated that the shaft might be opened after all.

When IRM learned that the elevator shaft had, in fact, been opened on July 22, preparations went back into high gear. Dave and Al Choutka met at the tunnel site to discuss final plans with the contractors. Pat Kielty of Teng & Associates, Jeff Havel of JHR and Tim Hussey of Parsons-Brinkerhoff Construction Services were most helpful throughout the project. Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation's Coordinating Engineer Sam Polonetsky was instrumental in matching our efforts and needs with the City's interests and resources.

As part of our preparation, the loads in the ash cars were analyzed. One car contained only ash, but the other four contained asbestos, material now considered hazardous. It would have to be carefully removed before the cars could be recovered. A city-approved disposition contractor provide a quote to the Museum, and the Chicago Department of Environment indicated that they would issue the necessary permit for asbestos removal. Although there was neither a budget nor sufficient restricted funds to pay for this removal, which would cost nearly $6,000.00, the Museum decided that the acquisition of these artifacts was so significant and time was so short that fundraising would have to be done after equipment recovery.

Steve Kehle and Dave Hurley of Walsh Construction generously agreed to support the Museum by providing a crane to lift the locomotive from the tunnel level up to the surface through the old elevator shaft. Fortunately, the contractor's plans for the elevator shaft included filling the south shaft, and installing a seven-foot-diameter manhole in the north shaft. This meant that the locomotive and cars would not have to be swung out over an open shaft 45' deep to be raised to the surface.

At 9:00 am on August 7, Dave (driving IRM Line Truck 21), A], Les, Carl Illwitzer, Andy Sunderland, and Mike DiPaolo arrived at the elevator shaft, now exposed and with the two tunnel portals visible like entrances into an Egyptian tomb. This was to be a very hot, dirty, exhausting day for our volunteers. Ray Fessenden drove to a City of Chicago Streets and Sanitation yard to borrow three "street plates" (large steel plates used to temporarily cover holes in the street). Walsh Construction personnel were already at the site being very helpful, cutting steel bracing, placing safety lines, and removing construction debris. The Field Museum's personnel showed up to check out the activity as IRM volunteers provided a continual stream of information about the tunnel system to anyone within earshot.

The crew loads the 503 on a Museum dump truck
The crew loads the 503 on a Museum dump truck for the ride to Union. Dave Diamond supervises as a crane provided at no charge by the Walsh Construction Company makes the lift out of the shaft. Photo by Les Ascher

The first objective was to recover the locomotive located nearly 300' from the now-exposed shaft in the S-curved tunnel. Positioning the line truck at the edge of the elevator shaft excavation, Dave reeled out all the bed winch cable into the tunnel, and Carl, Al, Les, Andy, and Mike dragged in chains to make the final reach to the locomotive. On the first gentle pull ("gentle" enough to almost pull the truck into the elevator shaft!) the wheels turned and the locomotive moved. After carefully bracing the line truck, the locomotive was slowly pulled the 300' to the tunnel portal, most of the way on the original Tunnel Company track.

At the open end of the tunnel, the IRM volunteers pulled the locomotive onto one of the street plates, which had been placed on top of the now-filled-in elevator shaft. This was perhaps the first time No. 508 had seen daylight since 1908! Although rusty and dirt-covered, the wheels and gears moved and the number "508" was still visible on its side. Although missing coupler knuckles, builder's plate and some axle caps, and with one headlight almost totally deteriorated, the locomotive seemed to be structurally sound.

Meanwhile, General Manager Nick Kallas had been talking with the public relations firm for the Lake Shore Drive Relocation Project, as they wanted to prepare background sheets for the press. Earlier in the day, Walsh Construction and IRM decided that the actual lift of the locomotive up and out of the shaft would be attempted at 3:00 pm. The PR firm then called the news media so they could cover the event. IRM would have to perform on cue!

Nick and Mike helped with binding the locomotive to the plate while Dave prepared the truck and surrounding area for the lift. Walsh Construction personnel cleared debris from the site and installed fencing to keep the visitors at a safe distance from the shaft for the media event. IRM President Kevin McCabe arrived to watch the lift and began providing interviews for the more than two dozen media representatives from newspapers, television, and radio.

At 3:00 pm, Walsh's big 50-ton crane arrived and lowered a four-legged lifting sling to the locomotive. With Alan directing the crane and Nick and Dave in the shaft, several test lifts were made to balance the eight-ton locomotive on the street plate. Then the lift began, with the locomotive emerging from the shaft and being gently swung to a waiting IRM truck.

Congratulations and picture taking followed. Local newspapers and TV and radio stations carried stories about the equipment recovery for several days, and the story was even carried on the Associated Press wire for newspapers as far away as Texas and the West Coast.

With the locomotive secured, the volunteers focused on the extremely fragile ash cars. Both the metal frames and the wood boxes were seriously deteriorated. Because they were loaded, there was some fear that they might fall apart when lifted; they needed to be emptied before being raised out of the tunnel. Ash car No. 532, the one actually filled with ash, was pulled onto the slag fill of the second elevator shaft to make shoveling out the load easier.

The next day, Al, Dave and Carl worked on shoveling out the ash. This proved to be a hot, dirty job because there was no circulating air in the shaft-a most disagreeable part of the recovery effort. By the end of the day, car No. 532, probably built in 1906, was on an IRM dump truck and on its way to the Museum. The bottom of the wood box was nearly rotted away, and the steel underframe of the car looked like Swiss cheese. This car seemed to be ready to fall apart.

The contractor hired by the Museum to remove asbestos
The contractor hired by the Museum to remove asbestos from four of the ash cars and load bags of the hazardous material for hoisting to the surface. Note the hazardous material suit and the plastic sheeting hung to seal off the area. Photo by Les Ascher
Al, Dave and Carl were back in the tunnel on the third day of the recovery to get the hazardous waste contractor started. Large sheets of plastic were glued to the tunnel to create a negative-pressure environment for bagging the asbestos. During the weekend, Al and Les used the Museum line truck to lift nearly 1,000 bags of asbestos from the tunnel mouth to the surface, as the contractor completed the removal and tested the air for asbestos fibers. Assisting the contractor with bag removal greatly reduced the cost of the asbestos removal.

With the four remaining ash cars now safe to handle, Al, Dave, Carl and Les arrived early Monday morning to finish the recovery. Ray Fessenden drove a rented semi-tractor with IRM's flatbed trailer to the site and returned the street plates to the City of Chicago. Meanwhile, the emptied ash cars, still coupled together, were pulled through the tunnel to the open shaft-certainly the last Chicago Tunnel Company train movement! Walsh Construction again provided a crane. The 5,000-pound capacity ash cars-Nos. 653, 766, 856, and 714-were lifted and immediately placed on the flatbed trailer.

The four diminutive cars on the large trailer elicited long looks from the passing construction workers. While No. 653 may date from 1906, the last three cars may be newer, possibly dating from 1929-1930 according to a car roster in Forty Feet Below, The wood bodies were mostly intact, but the steel frames and trucks were seriously delaminated. Some of the steel was tissue thin, and some has completely disappeared. Three of the cars probably can be cleaned up for display, but will remain extremely fragile.

Car 653 is lifted onto a waiting IRM semi
After asbestos removal, car 653 is lifted onto a waiting IRM semi for the trip to Union. Dave Diamond directs the "pick". Photo by Les Ascher
Considerable time was spent securing the load for safe transport to IRM. Thanks to Larry Appel from Skokie Emergency Services for help with this part of the project. This truckload, as others, was officially escorted to the expressway by two Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation tow trucks.

The tunnel equipment had barely arrived at Union when visitors began asking to see it, having seen news reports of our recovery project. The equipment had initially been tucked away on the south area of our property, awaiting cleanup and temporary cover. But the numerous requests from our visitors convinced Dave, Wally Osty and Les to temporarily move the locomotive and one ash car to a more central location, in front of Barn 6, where visitors could easily view our newest acquisitions.

The successful rescue operation went so smoothly because of extensive planning and cooperation between IRM; the City of Chicago Mayor's Office and the Departments of Transportation, Environment, and Streets and Sanitation; the contractors, including Walsh Construction; and The Field Museum. And the project would not have been possible without the contribution of services and hard work by many IRM volunteers.

But the effort is not over yet. The highest and first priority is to get this equipment under cover. One possible approach would be a lean-to structure next to one of our carbarns, similar to the electric car shop, which might be done for around $10,000.00. This is an achievable donation target that you can help make a reality.

Ultimately we intend to develop an interpretive exhibit explaining the unique Chicago Tunnel Company. Help will be needed, both in donations and volunteer effort, to restore, house, and properly display our new acquisitions in a display featuring a full-size mock-up of the tunnel itself. In addition we would like to find and display other supporting artifacts.

Of course, all our planning is subject to many changes, based upon the support available. A realistic display will take many thousands of dollars in addition to the expenses incurred in acquisition. If you find the Chicago Tunnel Company as fascinating as we do, you can help make the restoration and display possible by donating to the restricted fund set up for the Chicago Tunnel Company equipment.

From the Rail & Wire Issue 162, November 1996

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