Sectional View of LaSalle Street Tunnel, from J. M. Wing, Seven Days in Chicago, 1877 (ichi-055690
The LaSalle Street Tunnel, the northern entrance to which can still be seen at Kinzie Street, was officially opened on July 4, 1871, just three months before the fire. The tunnel's entrances were at Randolph and Kinzie streets, which are a little less than two thousand feet apart. Like the Washington Street Tunnel, which had been completed two years earlier, the purpose of the tunnel LaSalle Street Tunnel was to enable pedestrians and vehicular traffic to cross the busy Chicago River even when nearby bridges were turned to allow boats on the river to pass. When the fire reached the South Division, the two tunnels afforded escape routes to the North and West divisions.
The crush of frightened humanity in the LaSalle Street Tunnel figures in several descriptions of the conflagration, including a fictional treatment in E. P. Roe's bestselling 1872 novel of the fire, Barriers Burned Away. An excerpt from this novel is in the Library of the "Fanning the Flames" section.
This cross section is an illustration from a popular 1870s guidebook. It shows that the tunnel contained two one-way passageways for horse-drawn traffic and a third for pedestrians travelling both north and south.
Chicago celebrated the completion of the tunnel with the kind of civic ceremony that greeted many major new public works throughout the nineteenth century. A procession of carriages bearing public officials and leading citizens proceeded from the Court House and through the nearby Randolph Street entrance. This allowed the passengers, a reporter wrote, “to closely inspect the interior, which was found to be a model of completeness and tasteful workmanship.” It was “well lighted with gas, and admirably ventilated, and as neat, clean, and free from dampness as could be desired. In all respects it seemed to be a model tunnel,” especially when compared to the damp and “unpleasant” Washington Street Tunnel. The carriages then turned around at Kinzie Street and drove back through the tunnel to the Briggs House hotel at Randolph and Wells streets, whose proprietors had prepared “a sumptuous and elegant collation.” Here, amidst much speechifying, the contractors formally tendered the tunnel to the Common Council and the citizens of Chicago. One speaker noted that the choice of Independence Day for the opening was especially fitting, “since the completion of the tunnel was the beginning of an era of independence from bridge-tenders, railway companies, and lazy lake captains.” He toasted Chicago—“the city of to-day, and the Chicago of the future, the freest, proudest city on the continent.”
LaSalle Street North of Randolph Street, Photograph, 1890 (ichi-64374)
Writing in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Dennis McClendon points out that by the 1880s local cable car companies took over the two tunnels because their cables could not be installed on the drawbridges over the river, and that in 1891-92 they built a third railway tunnel that crossed the South Branch of the Chicago River north of Van Buren Street. In order to accommodate electric service, the tunnels were widened and deepened in 1911-12.
LaSalle Street Tunnel at Kinzie Street; Stefani Foster, Digital Photograph, 2011
The LaSalle Street Tunnel remained in service until 1939. The view here is south down LaSalle Street, with the Board of Trade in the distance. The north entrance of the LaSalle Street Tunnel remains open, but the tunnel is closed.