The Subway to Nowhere

Timing is critical to the success of any project, and sometimes the timing for a big, bright-eyed and forward-thinking project is just terrible.

Such is the case with the Cincinnati subway, which began with a drawing in a newspaper and died without ever running a single car or carrying a single passenger.

In the early 1900s, Cincinnati, like other cities built near waterways that had been used to ferry goods and people from town to town, was looking for a new use for the drained and out-of-use beds of the Miami-Erie Canal.

Some had originally suggested building a railway in the beds but the city’s management seemed to hate the idea, pointing to a Civil War-era regulation that all railway beds be built below grade. As electricity became ubiquitous, it became feasible to use electric grids to run cars on steeper grades, and by 1912 Bion J. Arnold, an “electric railroad consultant,” circulated a proposed route for an electrified rapid transit route.

A view of what might have been.

Arnold envisioned a dual track, 26-kilometer (16-mile) loop around the middle of downtown Cincinnati, roughly where I-74 Westbound can be found today, with a handful of underground stations serving as hubs. Unlike other early subway systems, a few above ground and suburban stations were included in the early schematics. A total just south of 1.6 kilometers (one mile) would be in new tunnels while just under 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) would be above ground.

Another impetus for the subway came more than a decade before, in 1884, when the Cincinnati Graphic printed an illustration of underground trails moving through tunnels built on the old canal beds while streets were built overhead for horse-drawn vehicles. (Remember – 1884 was still about 20 years before motorized vehicles were a thing.)

A handful of planned tunnels were constructed before the Cincinnati subway was abandoned in the late 1930s. Image: University of Cincinnati

Whoever originally had the idea, by 1916, the subway concept had legs and growing public support, with residents voting in approval of a $6 million bond for the construction of a rapid transit system. There was an understanding that the full cost of the project would be more than that already large total — the equivalent of $132,896, 146 USD in today’s dollars — the Cincinnati Street Railway agreed to share the cost, as it was presumed the company would lease the tracks themselves and run the subway system and, in time, any profits.

Graffiti is a common occurrence in the Cincinnati subway tunnels. Image: Zach Fein

And then, just as the project started picking up steam, the US entered WWI, nearly three years after it began. Less than a year had passed, enough time only for plans to be drawn up and documents to be signed but not long enough for bonds to be issued or work to really begin. The canals were drained in 1919, construction began in January 1920, but enthusiasm had begun to wane. Adding insult to injury, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the lease of the subway system to the Cincinnati Street Railway didn’t pass legal muster.

Cincinnati tunnels: then and now

Still, work limped along. Between 1920 and 1925, 11 kilometers (seven miles) of track were laid between the city’s center under Central Parkway up through the Norwood section of town. In 1925, the city ran out of money, and any work that continued was done under loans with heavy inflation rates. The bonds that had been issued years earlier were worth a fraction of their original value while the costs for the construction of the subway system doubled.

The hollow tunnels of the abandoned subway station never saw a single passenger. Image: Zach Fein

Not all was lost, however — the new road built atop the subterranean system opened to vehicles on Oct. 1, 1928. Residents celebrated for a week, but they couldn’t toast the occasion with champagne, as Prohibition was fully in effect. That, too, hurt the city’s efforts to fund the subway system, as alcohol had been a valuable revenue stream.

By that point, the writing was starting to appear on the underground walls. The city’s newspapers began writing pieces in opposition to the subway. The mayor dismissed the planning group that had been working on and designing the modified subway system.

And then the stock market crashed, sending the US into the Great Depression. By the time the city’s economy — like the nation — got back on its feet, federal funding was toward highways as America’s love affair with the car was in full bloom. The Cincinnati subway was officially killed around this time. An official report from the city council in 1936 suggested the underground tunnels be forgotten. There was another suggestion, to use the tunnels for trolleys, but that, too, was abandoned.

Some stations and tunnels have been bricked off to prevent graffiti artists and homeless people from getting too comfortable in the abandoned subway system.

As happens in most cities looking to handle increasing traffic, the idea of resurrecting the subway concept in Cincinnati comes up from time to time, but often gets waved away as quickly as it is mentioned. There’s discussion of filling in the tunnels, of converting them into art spaces or galleries; occasional tours are offered and, of course, rumors of the tunnels being haunted by the souls of poor workers who lost their lives on what was ultimately a pointless venture.