Huck Caverns

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.

000-Huck Beer

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?



Then and Now, 63rd-Loomis

1948--63rd Street @ Loomis, view west

1948–63rd Street @ Loomis, view west

2015--the same location

2015–the same location

The Englewood Branch of the South Side ‘L’ was completed to a terminal at 63rd-Loomis in 1907.  The station here became a busy transfer point from surface transit.  When Municipal (Midway) Airport opened in the 1920s, there were tentative plans to extend the ‘L’ to Cicero Avenue.

CTA eventually settled on a different route to Midway.  However, in 1969 the Englewood ‘L’ was extended two blocks west to its current terminal at Ashland, and the Loomis station was closed. Today the intersection is dominated by the 7th District Police Station, partially visible on the right of the newer photo.



Couch Tomb

If you’ve wandered around Lincoln Park behind the Chicago History Museum, you’ve seen the stone structure in the picture. Some people think it’s part of the museum. But don’t be fooled by the location. This is a real mausoleum.

Couch tomb

The south end of today’s Lincoln Park was once the Chicago City Cemetery. In 1837 the area was far removed from the little settlement near the mouth of the Chicago River, making it a good place to put the deceased. Later the Catholic Cemetery was established nearby.

Thousands of bodies were interred in Chicago City Cemetery over the next three decades. The more prosperous Chicagoans constructed mausoleums. The Couch Tomb was built in 1858, at a cost of $7.000. The first occupant was businessman Ira Couch, who’d died in Cuba the year before.

By 1865 Chicago was having problems with its municipal cemetery. Some of the dead didn’t stay fully buried in the sandy ground near the lake. Besides, the city was growing up around the site. Unlike Boston, having an old burial ground nearby didn’t increase property values.

In 1869 Chicago City Cemetery was taken over by the Lincoln Park Commissioners for conversion to a park. The bodies were transferred to Graceland, Rosehill, and other graveyards. The Catholics also vacated their cemetery, using the land for a new archbishop’s residence.

Ira Couch

Ira Couch

Transforming Chicago City Cemetery into Lincoln Park took over twenty years. With the dawn of the new century, all remnants of the graveyard were gone. All except the Couch Tomb.

One story says that the Couch family fought removal of the tomb all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won its case. However, nobody has found any documentary evidence of such a decision. Perhaps the mausoleum is still there because neither the park commissioners nor the Couch family wanted to pay for tearing it down. That’s the kind of explanation that makes sense in Chicago.

When I first started visiting Lincoln Park in the 1960s, the mausoleum was barely visible behind a massive growth of shrubbery. Officials were trying to hide it from the public. There was concern that park-goers might not want to go picnicking in a onetime graveyard.

After decades of neglect, the park district renovated the Couch tomb in the 1990s. The shrubs were cut down and the limestone structure itself was repaired. Now a spotlight illuminates it at night. The civic embarrassment has become a point of civic pride.

The next step will probably be to open the Couch tomb to the public, and charge admission.


Ghost Streets

Chicago has a number of diagonal streets overlaying the grid.  Most of them follow the routes of old trails.  The diagonals can be useful shortcuts—except when you run into backups at triple intersections.

Perhaps these streets seem eccentric to rigid bureaucratic minds.  For whatever reason, portions of several diagonals have been abandoned over the years.  Let’s look at five of them.

We lead off with Vincennes Avenue.  The street originally started at 35th and Cottage Grove, running southwest from there.  It was a major highway for travelers heading downstate.

During the 1870s, Washington Park was laid out.  Meanwhile, just to the south, rail yards were being established.  Vincennes Avenue passed through the area, and portions of the street were abandoned.

Today, most savvy Chicagoans know Vincennes Avenue as an arterial street going from 69th Street to the city limits at 119th Street, and beyond. Yet there’s still a remnant of the old highway north of the park—Vincennes Avenue the side street, from 3600 to 5100 south.

Ghost Street--Cottage Grove Avenue at 25th (1937)

Ghost Street–Cottage Grove Avenue @ 25th (1937)

Cottage Grove Avenue began at 22nd and Indiana, angling southeast to 39th Street.  From there the route continued due south for seven miles to 95th Street, where it again went diagonal.

In 1955, as part of a renewal project, the city chopped up Cottage Grove between 26th and 33rd streets.  A decade later, another stretch was abandoned during construction of the Stevenson Expressway.  A few blocks of the old diagonal remained north of the expressway into the 1990s, when they were also built over.

Ghost Street--Blue Island Avenue @ Harrison-Halsted (1948)

Ghost Street–Blue Island Avenue @ Harrison-Halsted (1948)

Blue Island Avenue follows the first few miles of an old trail from Chicago to the town of Blue Island.  The street began at the Harrison-Halsted intersection and ran southwest to 26th-Western.  South of there, the trail became part of Western Avenue.

Two sections of Blue Island have been vacated in the cause of education.  The section between Harrison and Roosevelt was abandoned in 1962, when construction began on the UIC campus.  In 1973 one more block was cleared between 21st Street and Cermak Road to accommodate the new Juarez High School.

Ghost Street--Milwaukee Avenue viaduct @ Kinzie-Des Plaines (1955)

Ghost Street–Milwaukee Avenue viaduct @ Kinzie-Des Plaines (1955)

Milwaukee Avenue originally ran northwest from a starting point at Lake and Canal.  Just up the street, from Fulton to Kinzie, a long viaduct carried Milwaukee over some busy railroad tracks.

In the 1980s the city reconfigured the area.  The Milwaukee Avenue viaduct was torn down, and traffic diverted onto a new Des Plaines Street viaduct.  In 2015 a single block of “old” Milwaukee Avenue still exists between Lake and Fulton.

Ghost Street--Ogden Avenue looking southwest from Clark-Armitage (1960)

Ghost Street–Ogden Avenue looking southwest from Clark-Armitage (1960)

Ogden Avenue was an old diagonal highway to the west, starting at Union Park.  As early as the 1880s, planners were talking about pushing the street northeast to Lincoln Park.  After twelve years of land clearance and construction, the Ogden Avenue extension was completed in 1934.

The extension didn’t last.  Traffic on Ogden declined sharply once the expressway system was built.  Between 1969 and 1993, nearly two-thirds of that expensive new street were abandoned.  Today, north of Fry Street, the only Ogden remnant is an isolated block off Clybourn Avenue.


Then and Now, Central-Eddy

1966--Central Avenue @ Eddy, view north

1966–Central Avenue @ Eddy, view north

2014--the same location

2015–the same location

Our location is one block south of Addison Street.  In 1966 the electric trolley bus continues to run on Central Avenue, as it has since 1930.  The street is lined with various small businesses and the occasional apartment building.  The light-colored building partially visible on the left is the new Northwest Hospital.

Today the trolley buses are long-gone from Central.  Northwest Hospital became John F. Kennedy Hospital for a while, and is now part of the Resurrection Health Care conglomerate.  The buildings along the west (left) side of Central are all part of the medical complex.



There Used To Be An Airport Here (3-30-2003)

Chicagoans often talk about building a third airport.  We did have a third airport until this date.  This was the day Meigs Field was destroyed.

Located just off the lakeshore near Roosevelt Road, Northerly Island is actually a man-made peninsula, part of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.  Burnham thought the land should be used as a park.  The 1933-34 World’s Fair was held on the site.

As air travel became popular, some planners got the idea Northerly would be a great place to put a downtown airstrip.  In 1948 a single 3,000-foot runway was constructed.  The facility was later named for aviation booster Merrill C. Meigs.

3-30--Meigs Field.jpg

Meigs Field eventually became America’s busiest single-runway airport.  Though much of the traffic was private planes, a few commuter lines ran scheduled flights.  There was also a helicopter service.

In 1994 Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to close the airport and return Northerly to its original purpose.  That set off a battle between aviation interests and environmental groups.  Lawsuits were filed.  Compromise solutions were worked out, then scrapped.

Nine years passed.  The mayor finally decided he’d waited long enough.  In the dead of night, bulldozers rolled onto Meigs Field and carved out huge “X” marks in the runway.  Now planes could not land or take off.  That’s all, folks!

Daley seemed surprised that anyone claimed his action was arrogant.  He’d been elected to a fifth term with 79% of the vote a month before.  Congress had failed to act on an agreement to keep Meigs open.  All he was doing was restoring a public recreational space that had been taken over by the fat cats.

3-30--Richard M. Daley.jpg

The mayor also cited public safety issues.  The al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center was still fresh in memory.  Daley said he was afraid a terrorist in a small plane might use Meigs to launch an air strike on the Loop.

Sixteen planes had been parked at Meigs, and were later able to depart using the taxiway.  One inbound flight had to be diverted.  The city was hit with a $33,000 FAA fine for closing the airport without sufficient notice.

Efforts to reopen Meigs Field failed.  The site is now a park.



Guido’s Magic Formula (3-26-1980)

Everybody knows the tale.  An obscure scientist develops a method to provide cheap, unlimited fuel–but greedy Big Business buys him off, to preserve their evil profits.  Part of that story was resolved today in a Chicago courtroom.

Guido Franch was born in 1910 in Livingston, Illinois.  He went to school through 7th grade, then quit to become a coal miner.  Sometime during the 1950s, he made his astounding discovery.  He learned how to turn water into gasoline.

He called his method MOTA, “atom” spelled backwards.  The secret was his special powder.  Franch was happy to demonstrate how it worked.

Guido Franch demonstrates MOTA

Guido Franch and his MOTA

First he dumped the powder into water.  The water turned green.  Next he poured the mixture into the fuel tank of a power lawn mower.  Then he started the lawn mower.  The water had become high-octane gasoline!

Franch was the subject of numerous breathless stories in supermarket tabloids.  He attracted a number of investors.  In 1954 he was brought to trial for fraud, but acquitted.  Then he laid low for twenty years.

By 1974 Franch was back.  Again he demonstrated MOTA, and this time he raised over $50,000 from investors.  Late in 1979 he was brought to trial in the U.S. District Court at Chicago.

At the trial, Franch revealed that the secret formula had actually been developed by a scientist in Livingston.  Franch had worked as the man’s lab assistant, and that’s how he had obtained it.  He also said that the Ford Motor Company had tried to buy the formula for $32 million.

“It’s so big it interferes with the billions of dollars invested by the oil companies,” Franch declared.  “It’s either worth $50 billion or 50 cents.”

The prosecution charged that Franch had used food coloring to make the water turn green.  They produced a witness who testified that Franch had admitted the formula was a hoax.  Franch had used aviation fuel to run the lawn mower.

The jury deliberated for six hours.  Today they convicted Franch on four counts of mail fraud, and one count of interstate transportation of a fraud victim.  He was sentenced to five years probation.

Guido Franch died in 1983.  His secret MOTA formula has never been found.





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