John Huck rates a footnote in most Chicago history books. In 1871 his home on Fullerton Avenue was the last building destroyed by the Great Fire. Less remembered is Huck’s peculiar legacy to State Street.
A brewer by trade, Huck arrived in town from Germany in 1846. The next year he opened Chicago’s first lager beer plant next to his residence on Chicago Avenue at Rush Street. The tree-lined property also became the city’s first beer garden.
Huck prospered. In 1855 he began constructing a sprawling complex of brewing buildings and malt houses along what’s now the east side of State Street, just north of Goethe. He also moved into a new home on the lakefront at Fullerton Avenue.
By 1871 the John A. Huck Brewery had become one of the largest breweries in the country. Running underneath the property was a series of underground tunnels. They were sunk at a depth of 20 feet to provide a naturally cool storage area for kegs of Huck’s beer. The tunnels were finished in masonry and measured 10 feet high by 20 feet wide. The entire labyrinth stretched back and forth and around for a distance of nearly two miles.
Like Huck’s home, the brewery was destroyed in the 1871 fire. The property along State Street stood vacant for years. In 1878 Huck laid plans to rebuild, but died before he could start construction.
The Huck family scrapped the brewery project and sold the property. During the 1880s the area began its transformation into the Gold Coast. Elegant mansions rose on the site of old John Huck’s brewery.
Below ground, the lager tunnels remained. Inevitably, they were discovered by the neighborhood kids. Exploring the Huck caverns became a rite-of-passage for a boy wanting to avoid the awful taunt of “Chicken!” The caverns were unlit, and it was a time before flashlights, but the youthful explorers were resourceful. They made candle lanterns out of tin cracker boxes, and were all set.
Local parents were distressed. They warned their sons that the caverns sheltered homeless people, fugitive from the law, or other disreputables. There were rats down there, too. Cave-ins were a constant danger.
Of course, all these lurid tales had the opposite effect on adventuresome boys. The caverns became an even more popular playground. City officials finally bowed to adult pressure, declared the caverns a safety hazard, and sealed them off around 1900.
Then, in 1927, when construction began on the new Ambassador East Hotel, some of the old lager caverns were rediscovered—and promptly obliterated to make way for the hotel’s foundations. In more recent times, high-rise buildings with deeper foundations have gone up on nearby lots. It seems likely the tunnels are gone forever.
Yet no one can say for certain whether all of John Huck’s caverns have been destroyed. Perhaps some of them remain. Perhaps a visionary promoter will locate them, and transform them into a tourist attraction.
Underground Chicago, anyone?