Chicago River wasn't so orderly a quarter century ago Thursday. Photograph by Gregory Tejeda
THEN, THERE WAS the date that occurred 25 years ago Thursday. The date of the Great Chicago Flood. When the basements of downtown Chicago buildings overflowed with water, engineers supposedly contemplated using mattresses to try to plug the hole and a certain generation will not forget the screwiness of that date.
Which in my mind is odd because the “flood” wasn’t really a flood. It was a leak.
As in the Chicago River sprung a leak and water flowed out and into the century-old tunnels that exist beneath the streets of downtown Chicago. When the water filled up those tunnels, the level had to rise to the various sub-basements that exist beneath downtown buildings.
Including the then-Marshal Field’s department store, where we got to hear the famed radio reports about the fish swimming in the basement at Fields.
WE LATER LEARNED that the leak was caused when workers with the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. that was replacing rotting wooden poles in the river installed a new poll just a little bit off – and wound up puncturing a hole into the tunnel.
This occurred in September of 1991. But it wasn’t until 25 years ago today that the water level became so ridiculously high that we at street level could no longer ignore it.
Personally, I remember working that day from my post at the pressroom of the then-State of Illinois Center. Working the telephones, I was accumulating information that went into the various stories the City News Bureau reported that day. I was vaguely aware that some people were leaving the Loop.
But the level of the evacuation didn’t become apparent until my shift that day was complete and a fresh crew of reporter-types were taking over for the night.
DOWNTOWN CHICAGO CAN be an eerie place when it is deserted and the only activity taking place is the changing of traffic signals from red to green and back again – only it doesn’t matter because there’s no traffic.
No people either.
It was reminiscent of a cheesy film I once saw called “Night of the Comet” in which the passing of a comet somehow unleashes a force that reduces much of humanity to piles of dust – and the few survivors tried to make sense of their lives in the remains of Los Angeles.
It almost felt like a similar force had been unleashed in Chicago – and the city was somehow all mine to do with as I pleased!
THERE LITERALLY WAS no one else around even though there still was daylight in the sky. Not even a newsboy crying out about the “Extra” edition newspapers he had, but couldn’t find anybody to buy (which I did see on Sept. 11, 2001).
Much of downtown Chicago’s life returned the next day, although there were the inconveniences as some places had their plumbing or water service turned off while officials tried to figure out the long-term solution to the problem. I also recall my own place of employment being closed for the day a couple of days later – and we were relocated to the Sun-Times Building. Which since has been obliterated by that giant tacky tower paying homage to His Excellency, Donald the First!
But the Great Chicago Flood where the river didn’t overflow. In fact, where else but in the Second City could a river spring a leak?
It’s all a part of what gives our fair city its unique character. That, and the hot dogs (Only Mustard Ever!!!)