Potthast's saloon, unofficially nicknamed "The Sewer," had one entry at 2 West Van Buren, while another, known as the "hatchway" was directly under the elevated stairway on State through a hole cut (one article says "concealed by the elevated structure steps") in the sidewalk and "descends quietly and unobtrusively into the murk." The W. Van Buren entrance seemed to have been to the restaurant portion of the saloon and had been known for its "seafood cuisine" (i.e., oysters) the other was to the more disreputable bar, described as a "Plutonian dive." A 1920 Tribune article mentioned that Potthast's reportedly sold 10,000 barrels of beer a year, "the greatest of any saloon in Chicago."
In April 1911 the police "discovered" that Potthast had been operating his "subterranean resort" for six years. According to the Tribune "not more than one in a hundred bibulous explorers whose proud boast is that they have drank in every saloon in the downtown district has ever set foot in its secluded precincts or even knows that it is there." A newsboy's stand protected one side and on the curb side the supports of the elevated concealed the almost perpendicular entrance. The ceiling of the "wineroom" was low and the walls covered with photos from sporting magazines and theatrical posters. The customers were a "motley assemblage of men and women."
Fred Potthast reported, "I had that stairway cut down there six years ago. It has attracted little attention. A person can enter the stairway without attracting attention and can leave it the same way. I got a permit from the city for the construction and I also pay the city $800 a year for the use of the space beneath the sidewalk." (The City Council Proceedings for 1906 indicates that First Ward Alderman Bathhouse John "Coughlin presented an ordinance in favor of Fred Potthast for a coal hole opening in sidewalk," presumably the underground entrance to the saloon?) A later story revealed why a private entrance was desirable. A raid on Potthast's "basement place" in May 1915 resulted in the arrests of 12 women for "disorderly conduct" and the waiter for soliciting. According to the story, "A bomb explosion would not have caused greater excitement at these open resorts than the three words, 'Potthast is pinched.'"
In June 1911 the police arrested 13 gamblers shooting craps in the "subterranean saloon." A craps table was hidden beneath the waterpipes and between the supports for the buildings above. The tramp of pedestrians on State St. could be heard by the gamblers beneath the sidewalk.
In Feb. 1922 William Potthast, Fred Potthast's brother, was shot to death by his 19-year-old stepson, Arthur Kelchauser, after William severely beat up his wife while in a drunken rage. Mrs. Potthast reported to the police, "Moonshine whiskey was the cause of it all. My husband had been drinking ever since he entered the saloon business six years ago, but he became worse when prohibition began and he had to drink bad whiskey." Kelchauser was exonerated by a coroner's inquest two days later by reason of justifiable homicide.
When the bar legally reopened after the end of Prohibition Fred Potthast's son, also named Fred, was running the bar. According to a 1965 Tribune article the State St entrance to the tavern was still in use and a restaurant still occupied the Van Buren address.
Note: Tom also turned up a picture of Potthast's Restaurant from the 1940s in a post titled, "Under the El: 1940" on a great blog called, Shorpy.
I also found a little tid-bit. Potthast's saloon is mentioned in The Jack-Roller at Seventy: A Fifty Year Follow-up By Jack-Roller and Jon Snodgrass (1982). It is the follow-up to the famous 1930 book on juvenile delinquency, The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story by Clifford R. Shaw. I could only get a piece of the information (the complete book has not been digitized), but here is the fragment:
In 1912 when I was five years old, I experienced the first of my father's trips to Fred Potthast's saloon on Van Buren Street in the Loop. I sat on a stool and enjoyed the choice of an endless array of meet and cheeses and other viands. My father paid five cents for the lot, including his glass of beer. Truly a wonder bar! The dollar indeed went a long way in those days.
Photo Credit: Entrance to a saloon in the sidewalk at South State Street and Van Buren Street. DN-0058068, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society (1911)