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The Cincinnati Subway is a set of unused tunnels and stations for a rapid transit system beneath the streets of Cincinnatimarker, Ohiomarker. It is recognized as the largest abandoned subway tunnel in the United States. Construction took place in the early twentieth century, but the project was not completed so it never hosted a paying customer.

The project has been described as "one of the city's biggest embarrassments," and "one of Cincinnati's biggest failures." Some argue that because rapid transit was never completed Cincinnati is smaller, forces its citizens to be automobile-dependent, has its downtown area dominated by highways and parking lots, lacks "walkable communities," motivates people to live outside of the city, and has spawned today's traffic jams. Others say it may have been abandoned anyway due to waning ridership, as was the case with the city's original streetcars and the Mount Adams Incline.

Proposals to complete the subway have been near continuous since its initial failure, but all attempts to use the tunnels for transit have failed thus far. Many Cincinnatians do not know subway tunnels exist under their city.


Rapid transit was seen as the solution for downtown congestion during the first quarter of the 20th century. Six million dollars were allocated for the project, but construction was delayed due to World War I. Unexpected post-war inflation doubled the cost of construction, so the project could not be finished at the original estimated price. Despite various attempts to use the subway tunnels for mass transit, thus far all attempts have been unsuccessful. Political squabbling, The Great Depression, World War II, and the rise in popularity of the automobile have all contributed to the current failure of the subway.

The idea

From 1825 until 1920 a canal divided Cincinnati's residential neighborhood of Over-the-Rhinemarker from the business district of downtown. The canal was used to transport goods and people into the city until the popularity of railroads caused it to go into disuse. The canal became unprofitable by 1856 and was officially abandoned by the city in 1877. On September 27, 1884 a weekly Cincinnati magazine called The Graphic proposed that the "dead old ditch" be used to provide an unobstructed route for a subway system, with a large boulevard above.

In 1888, Cincinnati began adopting electric streetcars, which soon became the main form of public transportation. By the turn of the 20th century Cincinnati was one of the ten largest cities in the United States, and had a rate of growth and economic importance that was similar to that of New York Citymarker and Chicagomarker. The slow streetcars shared the crowded streets with horse-drawn carriages, people, and collided with the first automobiles on an almost daily basis. It was not unusual for trips between downtown and the surrounding suburbs to take 45 minutes or an hour. Despite having of streetcar tracks, the city found itself in a growing traffic nightmare. In 1910, Mayor Henry Hunt spearheaded plans for a new rapid transit system.


The next year City Council convinced the Ohio State Legislature to lease the city's portion of the canal for use as a boulevard and subway system. The city hired experts that worked on Boston's and Chicago's Rapid Transit systems to research the best possible implementation for Cincinnati's Rapid Transit system. The result were four "Schemes," or proposed routes. The chosen plan, Scheme IV, modification H, looped around the city hitting the central suburbs of St. Bernardmarker and Norwoodmarker, the eastern suburbs of Oakleymarker and Hyde Parkmarker, and then returned into downtown.

In 1916 City Council authorized a bond issue of $6,000,000 with an interest rate of 4.25 percent, and then sent Rapid Transit to the public polls. On April 17, 1917, Cincinnati citizens voted in favor of using the bond for a Rapid Transit system, 30,165-14,286. However, just 11 days earlier, the United States entered World War I, so construction was halted because no capital issues of bonds were permitted during the war.

Construction and failure

When the war concluded in 1919 the cost of construction had doubled, increasing the original price to complete the loop to $12,000,000 or $13,000,000. Regardless, the city began work in January 1920 and planned to raise the money to complete the loop later. When bonds ran out in 1927 construction ended with seven miles (11 km) of subway dug or graded, but no track had been laid.

New estimates to complete the loop ranged from an additional $6,000,000 to $12,000,000. The boulevard that ran on top of the subway, called "Central Parkway," officially opened to traffic on October 1, 1928, and was followed by a week of public celebration.

Once it became apparent that the original Rapid Transit plan had failed, political squabbling in City Hall stalled any new progress, and any hope of raising the money to complete the subway was further delayed with the stock market crash of 1929. Though few citizens owned automobiles when Mayor Hunt first planned Rapid Transit in 1910, their increasing popularity and convenience rapidly obviated the need for a subway system. Critics of the subway project began referring to it as "Cincinnati's White Elephant."

Attempts at revival

In 1936 the city commissioned the Engineers' Club of Cincinnati to produce a report on how to use the unfinished rapid transit property. The report could not find any use for the tunnels other than what they were originally designed for. Because the city's needs had changed from twenty years early the report suggested that the subway "should be forgotten."

However, in 1939 the tunnels were researched for possible automobile traffic, but were found to be unsuitable for that use. In 1940 the city sought the advice of several experts to settle once and for all the fate of the subway. The report recommended placing all streetcar and trolley transportation underground (i.e. a subway), but Cincinnati already had too many other expensive public projects underway. The plan was put on hold yet again when the United States entered World War II in 1941.

During World War II, the city was focused on war-time rationing, so completing the subway was not a high priority. The tunnels were suggested as possible air raid shelters, but the idea was never implemented. The tunnels were also suggested for underground storage of commercial and military supplies, then as a pathway to bring freight into the heart of the city, but both ideas were shot down because they'd delay bringing mass transit to Cincinnati. After the war ended the City Planning Commission decided to not include the subway in its plans. Instead, the Commission would use the loop's right-of-way as pathways for Interstate 75 and the Norwood Lateral.

In the 1950s a massive 52-inch water main was laid in the north-bound tunnel to save $300,000 in construction costs. According to the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, a redundant water main was installed during the construction of Fort Washington Way so the water main in the subway could easily be removed. There is also an escape clause in Ordinance No. 154-1956 that states, "in the event said section of the rapid transit subway is, at some future date, needed for rapid transit purposes, the Water Works shall remove said main at its sole cost."

The subway bonds were finally paid off in 1966 at a total price of $13,019,982.45. Around that time Meier's Wine Cellars Inc. wanted to use the subway tunnels to store wine, as well as install a bottling operation to draw tourists, but it fell through due to a lack of proper building codes. In the 1970s Nick Clooney wanted to turn parts of the tunnel into an underground mall, as well as a night club, but that fell through early on due to insurance issues. In the 1980s the city pitched the tunnels to Hollywoodmarker filmmakers as an ideal location to shoot subway scenes. In particular, the location was presented to the makers of Batman Forever, but as of 2008 the tunnels have not been used in any feature films.

In 2002 the subway tunnels were proposed as a route for a regional light rail system that would cost $2.6 billion and take thirty years to build. The tunnels were favored because they were in an ideal location, they could easily be used to connect the east side and the west sides of Cincinnati, and they would've saved the city at least $100,000,000 in construction costs at the time. The light rail plan, called MetroMoves, proposed a tax levy that would've raised sales tax in Hamilton county by a half-cent. The plan was voted down by more than a 2-to-1 ratio.

Recently, the uncompleted subway tunnels and stations have been described as "striking well preserved" and "in good shape." This is partially credited to the original construction quality, and partially because Cincinnati must use tax dollars to maintain the tunnel because Central Parkway runs over top of it.

As of 2008 it would cost $2.6 million over five years to maintain the tunnels as they currently are, $19 million to fill the tunnels with dirt, and $100.5 million to revive the tunnels for modern subway use. Relocating the water main would cost $14 million.


There are three semi-completed stations located at Central Parkway and Race streets, at Central Parkway and Liberty street, and at Central Parkway and Brighton corner. There is a provision for a fourth station at Mohawk corner, where the wall has been set back. At Walnut street the lines begin to curve south to go into downtown, but they are stopped short by a bricked up wall. The subway tube is double tracked throughout its entire length, with a concrete wall separating the two tracks. Openings in the wall enable persons to step from one track to another. The tunnels are well ventilated and provide much light until Liberty street is reached.

One tunnel is meant to run north, the other south. Each of the two halves of the tube has a minimum width of and a height of . This should be ample room to accommodate any type of street car, trolley coach, or bus. Each tunnel has parallel wooden stringers which are bolted to the floor, and are intended to support steel rails that were never laid. They are from center to center, which is wider than most railway lines. All curves in the tunnel are gradual, and on those curves the outside stringer was raised higher than the inner stringer to accommodate trains traveling at speeds of more than .


As of April 2008, the only group authorized to provide tours of the Subway is the Cincinnati Museum Centermarker Heritage Programs due to their excellent safety record. The "talk and walk" tour lasts approximately two hours. It begins with a discussion about the history of the subway and continues with a five-block walk underground. Tours are very limited and book quickly. On April 12, 2008, 5 groups of 50 people each toured the Subway. Only one tour day is planned for 2008.

Similar subways

Cincinnati's design was very similar to Bostonmarker's Cambridge-Dorchester Tunnel (Red Line). A similar construction can also be found at the Newark City Subway using the former bed of the Morris Canal, the similarly abandoned Rochester Subway, which used the bed of the Erie Canal, as well as Calgarymarker's abandoned C-Train tunnels, underneath 7th Ave on Downtown Calgarymarker, Albertamarker, Canadamarker

See also


  1. Krewedl, Derek. (October 22, 2002) "New life for old subway?", Downtowner. pp.1,14.
  2. Singer 2003, p.17.
  3. Singer 2003, p.18.
  4. Singer 2003, p.46
  5. Singer 2003, p.19.
  6. Singer 2003, p.35.
  7. Singer 2003, p.36.
  8. Singer 2003, p.45
  9. Singer 2003, p.47.
  10. Singer 2003, p.73.
  11. Singer 2003, p.81.
  12. Singer 2003, p.71.
  13. Singer 2003, p.82.
  14. Singer 2003, p.98.
  15. Singer 2003, p.92.
  16. Singer 2003, p.98.
  17. Singer 2003, p.103.
  18. Singer 2003, p.102.
  19. Singer 2003, p.110.


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