Cincinnati’s century-old abandoned rapid-transit rail project

City Terrain Midwest Preservation Transportation
Part of the underground portion of the 11 miles of rapid transit constructed nearly 100 years ago in Cincinnati. (Jonathan Warren/ Wikimedia Commons)

Part of the underground portion of the 11 miles of rapid transit constructed nearly 100 years ago in Cincinnati. (Jonathan Warren/ Wikimedia Commons)

Beginning as early as the 1880s, and continuing through the 1920s, a 16-mile rapid-transit rail project was conceived in Cincinnati, entering a construction phase that to this day remains incomplete.

Stairs leading from the surface into the Race St. station. (courtesy Ronnie Salerno)

Stairs leading from the surface into the Race St. station. (courtesy Ronnie Salerno)

At the time, Cincinnati was one of the top 10 most populated cities and urban congestion was at an extreme capacity. An underground subway was proposed, replacing an aging canal system, connecting downtown with its surrounding urban neighborhoods. The proposed system facilitated an interurban transportation network incorporating nine suburban electric railroads that transferred passengers to streetcars servicing downtown. The project has been called the “The Cousin of Boston’s Red Line” by transit experts and, if completed, would have been one of the few pre-WWII subways in the country, joining similar east coast systems still in operation to this day.

Visitors exploring the tunnels beneath Central Parkway in 2009 (courtesy Ronny Salerno)

Visitors exploring the tunnels beneath Central Parkway in 2009 (courtesy Ronny Salerno)

Complex political, economic, and social forces caused the project to be ultimately cancelled in 1928. “Throughout the project, State and Federal law kept interfering with what Cincinnati wanted to do,” says researcher and documentary photographer Jake Mecklenborg in an interview with historian Dan Hurley. Local politics didn’t help the project either. As post-war inflation caused lingering project costs to double, political leadership was transformed from a notoriously corrupt regime to a new political party which sought to differentiate itself by symbolically rejecting the project through divisive rhetoric and policy.

In total, six stations along 11 miles of the system were constructed, but no track was laid and no subway cars were ordered. About 75 percent of the original construction—nearly everything above ground—has deteriorated to the point of collapse, or was demolished for highway infrastructure in the 1950s, a quarter century after being constructed.

A two-mile stretch under downtown Cincinnati remains, linking three stations. The downtown tunnels are continuously maintained due to continual overhead vehicular traffic, and their adopted use as underground utility tunnels. The final cost to the city, at just over $13 million, was more than double the initial bond issue voted for by the electorate in 1916, and was not paid off until 1966.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to living with abandoned subway tunnels is the variety of alternative uses they inspire. The Liberty Street station was converted to a nuclear fallout shelter in the 1960s. Mecklenborg reports the shelter had radio gear and a phone system installed: “up until around 1990 this phone actually worked, and apparently tunnel vandals could make free calls. I have received several e-mails regarding the phone—one claimed that a pizza was ordered, and another said a buddy called his girlfriend in Paris.”

A few of the most noteworthy attempts at reuse (most of which never succeeded due to logistical and/or legal issues) include:

  • Underground utility tunnels
  • Religious catacombs
  • Underground freight train delivery to downtown businesses
  • Underground winery with locally produced wine cellar storage
  • Experimental wind tunnel
  • Music festival location
  • Movie set location (Batman Forever)
  • Various light rail schemes
Access to the tunnels along Central Parkway in downtown Cincinnati (courtesy Ronnie Salerno)

Access to the tunnels along Central Parkway in downtown Cincinnati (courtesy Ronnie Salerno)

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