Did Irish Immigrants Live in Caves in Chicago?

In fact, did caves even exist in Chicago?

This lithograph accompanies the article below. Note the workers manning the jacks at the ground level of the building. (Click picture to enlarge it.)

Chicago Tribune, February 7th, 1866

"THE BRIGGS HOUSE.—The Briggs, which has ever succeeded in uniting those rare elements of hotel character, popularity and respectability, is about to materially increase its claims to public patronage. During the coming season it will be raised some four feet two inches to grade, the lower part completely remodelled, and the entire house refurnished at an expense of some fifty thousand dollars..."


Did Irish immigrants ever live in caves in Chicago? That may seem like a strange question; let me explain why I ask it...

As a result of posting a message to a Dunn(e) genealogy message group to which I subscribe, I received a response from a gal named Kathleen Wilson. With her permission, here are excerpts from it that are relevant to the headline above:

“Hello, Patrick,

…I'm not nearly as organized about research as many of the clan are, but I do try to collect the 'stories'... Because it's the stories that interest me most, [having your] e-mail address…brings me to ask you a question. My aged aunts and uncles had a huge reunion in Milwaukee in 1988 and I traveled from Japan to be there - we spent many nights around a huge kitchen nook table sharing/listening to family stories.

When it came to where and when our original family came to America, the story was that our [Irish immigrant] great grandparents lived in caves under Chicago until they got their feet on the ground. I never believed it, but took my first trip to Chicago several years ago on business and took a guided tour of the city...[and] the guide mentioned that there were caves under Chicago's "Miracle Mile" (I'm not sure about the name but it's a major main street in downtown Chicago) and that immigrants used to live there when they first arrived. I think she said that there are now boutiques and shops under that road. [Emphasis added]

When I saw [your] e-mail address I wonder[ed] if anyone in your clan knows of that story or can verify…in any way that immigrants lived there… When I went to Ellis Island I couldn't find the record of when they came; when I went to Ireland I didn't have enough time to research there either. But I'd like to know if the story about living in the caves could be true.

We Dunnes have certainly spread out around the world....a good strong clan!"



After spending some time using my favorite search engine, I sent her the following message:

Hi, Kath;

I just did a little online research and found the article below. After several non-responsive searches related to caves and tunnels, this result came from a search for "Irish immigrants + Chicago + subterranean".

Not incidentally, Chicago had a large Irish population in that era, so that, too, lends credibility to the possibility of your story being true.

In Ireland, most peasants lived in "cottages" they themselves built of sod, peat and rocks they'd gathered from the fields - not too much different from caves if you think about it. Living underground would probably not be perceived by them in the negative way you and I would see it in today's society.

"...Another of Chicago’s early vice districts was named the 'Willows'. It was the headquarters of one of Chicago’s first crime czars, Roger Plant... Plant ran a saloon at Monroe and Wells known as the Barracks. The Barracks was an around-the-clock gambling den and bordello. The Barracks, like most of downtown Chicago, was built upon the wetlands that surrounded the Chicago River’s entrance into Lake Michigan. As a result, the streets surrounding the Barracks, and much of the rest of Chicago, were notorious for their muddy conditions.

In an effort to eliminate this quagmire, the City decided to raise the level of many Chicago streets, making it necessary to raise the foundations of the buildings along the newly upgraded roadways. In some cases, whole blocks were raised as much as ten feet.

The end result was the creation of underground passages, streets, and earthen rooms. This subterranean area was controlled by Plant and became home to the many thieves, pickpockets, and muggers who frequented his saloon. Some say that the many underground rooms that existed beneath the Barracks gave rise to the term 'underworld' as a description for that segment of society that engaged in organized criminal activity." [Emphasis added] (Source)



Editor's note: To provide readers with an idea of the monumental scope of this undertaking, here's an excerpt from an article about the raising of just one of the buildings:

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 26th, 1861

"One, Two, Three, and Up She Goes!

To fully appreciate the immense power of the screw, one should visit the vicinity of the Tremont House, and observe the slow but sure and steady process by which that solid mass of six story brick buildings, covering over an acre of space, is being hoisted into the air. Five thousand screws, each ten of which has the entire attention of one man, a few simultaneous turns of an iron lever, and up she goes!

The power was first applied to raising the Tremont building yesterday forenoon about ten o’clock, and at six last evening, when the workmen departed, it had gone up just one foot, and that without a single crack in the great wall surface, or an accident of any kind to mar the entire success of the operation.

It required the strong arms of a small army of men, to be sure, as five hundred were alone employed to attend the screws. Several were also busy tearing down one of the rear buildings upon whose ruins the new and commodious kitchen and dining rooms, covering a space one hundred and eighty by one hundred feet, are to rise…

It is said by the contractors that they propose having the Tremont House up to grade—and it must be lifted full six feet to accomplish this—by Saturday night next. And should no untoward accident happen, it looks now as though they might keep their word. The job, thus far, has been entirely satisfactory to both contracting parties." (Source)


In part, Kathleen Wilson's reaction to the message above was as follows:

“Thank you so much, Patrick! It all fits quite well as an interesting possibility.”

My "verdict": It's possible, even seems likely, that the story is true.

Although we haven’t documented Kathleen's aged aunts' and uncles’ stories about her great grandparents living in “caves”, the evidence demonstrates that the raising of the streets in Chicago in the 1850s - 1860s created cave-like areas that people lived in. (This link will take the reader to a site with many news items that describe the huge scope of this amazing project.)

Two other aspects of the situation: First, there were hordes of immigrants flooding Chicago in that era - tens of thousands - and most of them were impoverished when they arrived. Second, why would someone make up such a story? I don't see any potential benefit coming from doing so.

Thus, it seems to me that it may very well be true that some Irish immigrants (and perhaps others) stayed in places like these "caves", at least for awhile.


Kathleen's somewhat contrary view: It's possible, but she's skeptical.

I relayed my "verdict" to Kathleen, but she is not convinced. In another message to me she said: "Yes, it may be true, Patrick, but I heard a lot of strange stories from the Irish 'shanakees' (storytellers) in my family that week [of the reunion] about some of my more eccentric Dunne relatives; it may be that the 'originals' here knew of someone who did live in the caves and claimed to have done so themselves, or perhaps they just thought it romanticized their tale of the beginning of their life in America.

I dearly love all the stories, but I wouldn't swear to any of them:-) I have learned enough to realize how unique they all are, and I just love being a part of the Dunne clan!"


So, I must leave it to the reader to evaluate the information I've assembled about this interesting piece of history - the raising of streets and buildings which led to the creation of "caves" under the city of Chicago, and the possibility that immigrants may hve lived in them for awhile.

In any event, the more I learn about what our forebears went through in the process of establishing themselves in the New World of America, the more grateful I become that they had what it took to survive – and ultimately make it possible for us to be where we are today!

Thanks, ancestral family!

Last updated 5/11/2010

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