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Flood Brings a Deluge of Book Orders : Publishing: Since the recent disaster beneath Chicago, requests have poured in for "Forty Feet Below," a history of that city's system of tunnels.

April 26, 1992|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLENDALE — To most Southern Californians, the recent flood in an underground Chicago tunnel may have been nothing more than another faraway disaster.

But for publisher Jim Walker, the collapse of a wall underneath the Windy City has meant a torrent of unexpected business for his small Glendale company.

Walker is the executive vice president of Interurban Press, a publishing company that puts out books, videos and magazines about railroads and rail transit.

And suddenly, a book he published in 1982 has become a hot item in Chicago. "Forty Feet Below," by Chicago author Bruce Moffat, is an 80-page history of the extensive system of freight tunnels that snake beneath the streets of Chicago.

For 10 years, Interurban has sold Moffat's book to rail fans and history buffs. With six printings and about 10,000 copies sold, it was not exactly a bestseller.

But since the Chicago disaster, Walker said, the little book has completely sold out.

"Everybody wants one," Walker said. "We didn't have but a couple hundred copies left, and they're all gone. We're going into a seventh printing of about 2,500 copies and they're just about all sold already."

As for the author, he's practically become a household name in Chicago, having appeared on numerous television and radio shows over the past few weeks. "Everybody's been trying to find him," Walker said.

The Chicago flood has been about the biggest thing to happen at Interurban Press since it was founded in 1942 by Ira Swett, a radio organist and public relations executive for the Salvation Army.

Swett, a rail fan, started the company as a hobby when he began corresponding with other railroad enthusiasts in the service during World War II.

"He kept them posted on what was happening at home--what lines were running and which ones were abandoned," Walker explained. Swett named his company after the interurban trains that traveled between cities--in contrast to the "locals" that ran within cities.

When Swett died in 1975, he left his hobby to a friend, Mac Sebree, who now serves as president of Interurban Press. Walker, another friend, joined the company shortly thereafter.

"It started out as a hobby and turned into a business," Walker said.

Now, the company has 10 employees in Glendale and in a production office in Waukesha, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. It publishes and distributes three magazines--the monthly "Pacific Rail News" and "Passenger Train Journal" and the bimonthly "Private Varnish." The Glendale office is the business and editorial headquarters of the company.

The two monthly publications, Walker said, each have circulations of about 10,000 and subscribers all over the world. "Private Varnish," a publication concentrating on privately owned passenger rail cars, has about 3,000 subscribers.

In a good year, Interurban publishes eight or 10 books, all dealing with transit and trains. Most are historical reference volumes. Some, such as one published on the history of East Coast commuter rail engines, can be quite technical, subscription clerk Jaune Smith said.

Moffat's book details the history of the network of abandoned tunnels 40 feet under the Loop that carried two-foot-gauge electric rail cars between 1910 and 1959. The railroad, similar in size to a mine train, connected the lower basements of many of Chicago's largest buildings and was used to haul coal and merchandise to offices and stores.

Since the railroad was abandoned, the tunnels have mostly been sealed off or used for storage and as conduits for fiber-optic cables. The flooding that caused well over a billion dollars in damage in Chicago's business district earlier this month was traced to a section of tunnel wall that had collapsed.

"A piece of the 'Blues Brothers' movie is filmed in those tunnels--that's about all the general public would have seen of them before now," Walker said.

But since the flood, Interurban has taken orders for the book not only from historians and public officials but from people who are simply curious about the old railroad tunnels.

"It's like finding something under L.A. that nobody knew about," Walker said.

In fact, he said, few people realize that there is a subway tunnel under downtown Los Angeles that predates the Metro Rail project. The last mile of the Pacific Electric Red Car line that traveled from Glendale to Los Angeles between 1925 and 1955 was underground. It is now unused, its entrance fenced off and outer wall covered with graffiti.

Obscure bits of history like that--and people who are eager to learn about them--are what keep Interurban in business. The company will see "a blip" in its sales figures when it releases the seventh printing of Moffat's book next week. Walker said he hopes to sell all 2,500 copies almost immediately at $13.95 a piece.

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