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CHICAGO FREIGHT TUNNELS
It was a chilly night and we were all anxious to get into the warmth below Chicago. Recently, it has been rather convenient that we have been able to borrow barricades from a nearby construction site. We simply grab one and place it before the hole in the middle of the street, before we open it up and climb down. The barricade gives us a little assurance that a car will not be running over our heads on the way out.
Derailer popped the opening and we all climbed down to the first landing (which I believe is about 10 feet below the street). Here we wait until all are down and the entrance grate is closed before we descend the next ladder to the bottom. Derailer was nice enough to head down first and turn the lights on. The rest followed down to the platform at the bottom where we prepared for the mission by removing our coats, getting out our cameras and slipping into our rubber boots. (Those that had them.)
Trekking and Navigation
Then, single file, we play 'follow the leader' into the darkness with only the light of our headlamps and flashlights to see. If the lights are functioning, most of the time you can run around flipping switches to light up the ComEd improved tunnels. Many, lights however, do not function and it is in your best interest to have a few flashlights on you as well as easily accessible batteries.
We proceeded on along thin horseshoe-shaped tunnels of concrete and brick, lined with protruding pipes, wires and conduit. (The protrusions from the walls make it a must for the inanely oblivious (like myself) to wear a hard hat or helmet. I don't know how many times I would have busted my head open without one.)
Once in a while we come to a junction where tunnels meet at four-way intersections, (grand junctions) or where a bypass tunnel shoots off, (usually to a dead end.) Fortunately, the City of Chicago has been so nice to install 'Dead End' signs so that you avoid uninteresting treks that lead to nowhere. If there isn't a sign, we ask Derailer, 'Is there anything interesting down there?' and the usual reply is that it just simply dead ends.
When one treks into the waterlogged sections of old tunnel, one must be aware of what lies underfoot. The more experienced explorers (Derailer and Ottorepo) have noticed that in many places where there is a hole or dip, there are 'flags'. These flags are anything tied and dangling from the pipes above. It might be a piece of plastic, cloth or rope, but chances are that there is something nasty below it, so watch out!
Also in these sections. it is best to stay to one side of the tunnel floor. The reason is that the old rails run through the center and between them there were once sumps that pumped the water out of the tunnels. Derailer believes that some of these sump holes are as deep as 3 to 4 feet. This situation makes the trek quite a bit slower because you can not see through the water and you end up 'feeling' your way.
Atmosphere and Speleothems
Jhereg and I noted on our expedition, just how diverse the atmosphere is within the tunnel system. Some places are muddy, flooded, cool, dry, and some are warm. Either way, most are very humid and filled with fine particulate matter floating about in the air. Although we have considered using dust masks, the thought only crossed our minds. There is just nothing like a good nose blow (and shower) after you have left the tunnels to reveal the filthy air you have been breathing!
Many features usually found in natural caves have developed in the depths below Chicago. We pause on several occasions to touch crystal formations or take photographs of the various speleothems.
Speleothems and other signs of corrosion within the tunnels range from 'soda straws' (thin calcite drip formations from the ceiling), fuzzy gypsum 'angle hair' on various surfaces, and stalagmites and stalactites of various colors. Many formations are blood red from metals such as iron used in the brick and concrete formations of the walls and the old freight train rails on the floor. The stalagmites and stalactites are the result of minerals bleeding through cracks and pores in the concrete and brick due to the constant supply of moisture and carbon dioxide. I find most of these formations fascinating.
One of the older sections of the tunnels that we arrived at, after trekking through many city blocks of perilous, murky water, was so incredibly humid and damp that water droplets remained in perfect formation upon the tunnel walls and ceiling. Often these droplets appeared to glow when caught in right light. In these areas the walls were darker below a slimy white film of mineral deposit. We even found an old cardboard box 'growing' down there.
Art, Poetry and Humor
It was at one of the 'grand junctions' that we came across the 'Tunnel Beast'. A fantastic mural apparently scratched into the wall by a person named 'Dion'. 'Dion' had obviously spent a lot of time and effort on the beast for it covered almost the entire surface of a grand junction division wall!
It is not uncommon to find this type of artwork in the tunnels. We assume that most of this work is actually done by workers in the tunnels and most of the work is scratched into the wall surface giving the appearance of a fine chalk or pastel drawing.
It is pretty obvious that there are few women working down there since many murals depict female bodies (or parts thereof) sexually if not pornographically.
There is quite a bit of humorous work ranging from poetry, 'do not' signs and a wonderful mural of someone's boss getting something shoved 'where the sun don't shine'!
On rare occasion, one will find artifacts and evidences of the old freight tunnel system. Sometimes you will just find old junk toted off into a corner or alcove that no one has ever bothered to remove. Artifacts vary from old signage, (painted directly onto the walls at a junction), electric cabling hangers, (still attached above your head) to rusty old carts and equipment. These are very exciting finds that reveal the long forgotten (if not hidden) history of the place.
It is always an event when someone in our group stumbles upon an artifact or speleothem. With the usual 'you gotta see this' shout, we all come running (or sloshing, as the case may be) in hope of seeing something really cool! We hope to find an old rail car down there sometime. We think that it is highly unlikely that all of them were ever removed.
Wrapping it Up
After a while of following our trusty guides Derailer and Ottorepo, we decided to head back. In hopes of finding a drier route we followed them until we arrived at nowhere. Figuring that the dead ends and cutoffs in the system were too difficult to navigate at this time, we once again entered the murky waters from whence we came and plodded back through the system to the platform at the base of the ladder.
Here, we wrapped it up, took off our boots, put on our coats and tucked away our equipment. Earlier, Ottorepo had found a street sign and now had to deal with a proper configuration in order to fit through the holes on his climb out. We all packed up properly and began our climbs to the surface. It wasn't long before everyone was back at the landing just below the street. Derailer was nice enough to turn out the lights before he sprang up the ladder like a natural, to do us the favor of lifting the grate and holding it open for us to emerge from the depths into the cool night air.
I went up after him and after struggling to squeeze my pack through the opening, I rolled out onto the freezing pavement and sat there actually enjoying the cold. One by one everyone eventually filed out onto the street. Many commented on how it seemed to have gotten warmer outside. (I know that I was only warmer from the rush I get out of climbing the ladders of which I am terrified of.)
We all rolled off to breakfast, but I could feel myself fading fast. I dropped off Jhereg and Ottorepo at the greasy spoon where they were to meet up with Derailer and our guest explorer. I headed home to the warmth of my apartment, wonderful husband and cats. Shortly after arriving, I went to bed and fell fast asleep dreaming of the next urban exploration.