HYDE PARK — Residents in Hyde Park have reported a strange trembling in the neighborhood that started as the weather grew colder.
“The sound was quite variable, at times somewhat like a locomotive, at times somewhat like your giant fan, at times like something grinding away,” said Caroline Herzenberg, who lives at 1700 E. 56th St.
Others said they experience it more as a vibration or a change in air pressure.
“It’s not as sharp as a change in pressure in an airplane, but it’s similar,” said Ann Marie Miles, who lives at 5490 S. Shore Drive, adding that she only experiences it when she is in her apartment in the afternoon.
Others have reported a vibration that shakes their windows or a low-level hum.
All said the phenomenon lasts less than five minutes and happens even if the obvious causes like trains or trucks are not present. Those who have reported experiencing the trembling all live within three blocks of the Metra tracks from 58th to 55th streets. Most report the source of the phenomenon appearing to come from deep underground.
“I could hear it most clearly in the evening, when traffic noise was low,” Herzenberg said.
At Herzenberg’s building and others, maintenance staff have looked for faulty or malfunctioning equipment, but found nothing that could explain why so many people are reporting the noise.
Richard Miller, a professor of molecular pharmacology at Northwestern University, said his neighbors have complained of a humming noises coming from his building at Blackstone Avenue and 58th Street.
"When you put your head down on the floor, you can hear it welling up from below," Miller said of the sound, which he said usually occurs about once a day in the evenings.
He said a source of the noise was never discovered in his building or those nearby.
Miller said he wonders if his former employer, the University of Chicago, may have something to do with the phenomenon.
The university famously conducted secret experiments to create the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a lab underneath Stagg Field in 1942.
Miller said during his time at the university from 1975 to 2000, he discovered passages in subbasements of university buildings that were off limits to faculty and staff.
"There are a lot of things going on under there," Miller said. "If it's a secret, who would know?"
There are tunnels connecting much of the neighborhood, particularly around campus, where an extensive system links campus buildings with the steam plant at 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue.
Will Vaughan, a graduate student at Brown University, spent his undergraduate years exploring Hyde Park's steam tunnels, where temperatures can rise to 120 degrees.
Vaughan has found tunnels connecting many of the buildings on campus, but said he has not found anything in the area where people are reporting strange noises.
Though many people report similar experiences, it’s not clear that they are related.
“I think there are probably a number of things going on,” said Miles, who said she's experienced the phenomenon more as a change in pressure.
Theories about the noise range from people experiencing the early symptoms of tinnitus to people hearing the rumbling of a garbage truck.
Miles said she thinks her experience may have something to do with her building’s pipes, which were once connected to the neighboring Shoreland Apartments.
Miles said when she served on the board of the cooperative building, she discovered Prohibition-era tunnels connected to the neighboring Shoreland, which were later used to run hot water pipes between the buildings.
“They were originally used to move alcohol to clubs like the Shoreland,” Miles said.
Notorious bootlegger and gangster Al Capone was a frequent guest at the Shoreland during Prohibition.
The tunnels connecting the buildings have since been sealed, and Miles said she is unsure whether they have anything to do with her experience.
“It doesn’t seem connected to my radiators, they have their own noises associated with them,” Miles said.
Miles said she thought some of the noise could be related to work on the foundation of the university’s Laboratory School during the construction of the new arts wing.
A spokesman for the university said there has been no recent work on the foundation of the Lab School, and the university is not conducting any research that would affect residents in the area where people are reporting noises.
The university's architect and head of facilities services did not return calls about other construction that could explain the noises.
In an email circulating among neighbors, university architect Steve Wiesenthal said the university had recently tested emergency generators at a building south of Midway Plaisance.
“This has required startup, idling, revving, idling, etc.,” Weisenthal said in the email. “It may be reassuring that this is not a routine activity and should be completed very soon.”
Wiesenthal was unavailable to further explain the tests, and a spokesman for the university was unable to say whether the tests corresponded with the times residents reported hearing strange noises.
A spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation said there was no recent work on underground infrastructure owned by the city in the area.
During several trips by a reporter over the last couple of weeks to areas where residents reported hearing the noises, the sound could not be heard. But residents said the timing of the noise is not exact and can be difficult to predict.