It will surprise many Brookfield residents to learn that a centennial is occurring for one of the village’s most useful landmarks — the Congress Park subway tunnel.
It’s not much to look at, especially when its white walls are covered with graffiti. But it has been a valued necessity since its opening day.
On Dec. 7, 1911, Brookfield Village President Thomas Alway presented a plan to the village board recommending that “a subway should be constructed … wide enough to accommodate not only foot passengers, but also teams [of horses, with wagons] and automobiles.”
Looking at the tunnel today, one can only smile at his original plan. Horses and wagons? Autos? Although, it has been alleged by others that a Volkswagen Beetle once made the trip from one end to the other. And this reporter did see, with his own eyes, a motor scooter come out of the tunnel.
Why a subway tunnel at all? In the early 1900s, the railroad significantly raised the tracks and the platforms at the Congress Park stop. On the south side, passengers had to climb 15 wooden steps to get to the platform for the Chicago-bound train. And if someone wanted to go west, the three tracks had to be crossed, whether there was a long freight train on them or not.
The Sept. 6, 1913 Brookfield Magnet newspaper called the area “one of the most dangerous in the suburbs, and has been the cause of more than one person losing his life.” The village government, local civic groups and private citizens all had been complaining to the railroad for years.
There were fewer complaints coming from passengers coming from north of the stop, because that section of the village, known as Portia Manor, would not be developed for at least three more years.
The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad began to work on the tunnel, but it would only go partway in, to steps leading up to the north platform. The Brookfield Magnet wrote that the subway would be “attractive as well as convenient.”
No photos exist to attest to any of this reported architectural beauty. It is difficult to imagine the word “attractive” being applied to the tunnel. Still, the Oct. 4, 1913 Magnet followed up on this: “The plans show a very artistic structure and the beauty of the station will be added to.”
The mind boggles.
After weeks and weeks of delays, the Magnet on Nov. 15, 1913 announced that “The new subway … was opened this week.”
No exact date, so probably a few days before the 15th.
Still, the tunnel only went 77 to 83 feet in, and not all the way. That would have to wait until July 14, 1927, when the local Kiwanis Club met with railroad officials to get steps built up to the south platform and have the tunnel extended all the way through.
People in Portia Manor, north of the tracks, had to climb up a little wooden stairway, and cross over the busy switchyard tracks to get to the platforms. Showing its usual flair for speed, the railroad began work by May 1928, ten months later.
By August 1928, they had completed all the work. The tunnel finally went all the way through. Staircases led up to both platforms.
From end to end it is 122 feet long, 6 feet wide and 7 feet, 4 inches high. Wooden boards make up its flooring and, apparently, always have. It is still used by commuters, pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers, bicyclists and parents pushing baby strollers.