“The stairs are nowhere near code,” warned City Engineering Technician John Luginbill, who gives approximately a dozen tours a year through subway tunnels that never once moved a train. “The top and bottom steps are larger than the rest.”
Of course they are — building codes in 1920 were a lot different than they are in 2004. But after the last large wooden step, the Cincinnati subway opens up into a cavernous space of concrete support beams, a vast floor-to- wall clearance and the knowledge that for six years, a lot of men did a lot of hard work down here.
It’s been nearly 80 years since work on the subway was stopped and the project was abandoned. Yet fascination with the dark, dank tunnels has never waned.
During a Bockfest tour last month, scores of people were turned away because the 90 slots for the tour were already taken. And Cincinnati Tomorrow, a young professional organization in the city, received 300 responses for the first tour it sponsored. With only 50 slots available, a lot of people went away still wondering what it looks like.
Luginbill, who inspects the tunnels once a year, suspects the interest stems from an attraction to unknown spaces. And certainly Cincinnati’s subway tunnels are a lesson in unknown spaces.
Many people have never even heard of the Cincinnati subway, and others who have think it is an urban legend. Very few have actually walked the subterranean tunnels or seen the wholly intact platform under Race and Central Parkway.
“The subway is such a mysterious and interesting and unusual feature of our city,” said Allen Singer, author of The Cincinnati Subway: History of Rapid Transit, which was published last year to much praise. “A lot of people want to know why it was built, why it is there and why it is not being used.”
Inside a Time Capsule
The first thing that hits a visitor when they descend the stairs to the station platform is the smell, like an old musty cellar. It reeks of 80 years of being shut in and unused.
Then the size strikes the visitor, followed by how good it looks for an old abandoned subway.
“I was sort of surprised because when we were looking at the photos in the presentation, I thought it would be really, really small,” said T. J. Doherty, of Newport, who toured it for the first time. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect or how finished it would be or how decrepit it would be. It’s less finished, but better kept, tall and cavernous.”
It’s like a time capsule with nothing captured. The tunnels look today largely the same as they did when work stopped in 1926. Other than a smashed Mountain Dew can and the cellophane from a pack of cheese slices, there isn’t much to note about it. There is graffiti and some litter, but mostly it looks like freshly poured concrete awaiting finishing materials.
And that’s sort of how it went, according to Singer. Work on the subway was started in early 1920 when contractors drained the canal and lifted the ground from it. By 1928, work was completed, and in October, Central Parkway opened to traffic over the hidden subway.
But by that time, Cincinnati faced political changes with a new mayor, and the United States was about to enter the Great Depression followed by World War II. Not to mention the impact of the automobile.
“Part of what did in the rapid transit system is the auto dealer,” Luginbill said during the slide presentation he gives before each tour.
In one photograph, behind a group of men digging and pouring the foundation of the subway, is a building advertising tires, alongside another advertising cars. There is another picture of a group of men standing on the finished pedestrian bridge at Baymiller Road in the West End. “The men who poured the concrete got to be in the picture,” Luginbill said.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Looking out from the station platform at Race and Central Parkway into the black tunnels, a visitor can’t help but think about the men who poured the concrete, constructed the support joints and fastened the oak beams. Sure, they got paid, and it’s not as though one feels sorry for them. But one can’t help but wonder what they would think seeing this, knowing that in 2004, the city has yet to come up with a use for the space.
Surely they imagined it supporting subway trains, moving people in and out of downtown and giving Cincinnati the metropolitan feel it deserved. After all, Cincinnati voters approved the $6-million bond for its construction in 1917.
But it never happened. Their work was seen only by passersby and photographers, never by subway passengers.
But what they did was exemplary. It looks like that at any moment, people could rush down the concrete steps to the platform and catch their train. It is so perfectly empty and vast that the imagination has nothing else to do but picture what could have been.
And that is the fascination that led Singer to write his book, Cincinnati Tomorrow to sponsor tours and a group of University of Cincinnati (UC) students to be the latest to develop a plan for the vacant subway.
Over the years a number of ideas have been proposed for the 2.1-mi. stretch of tunnel, including a bomb shelter, winery, wind tunnel and underground nightclub.
Most recently, UC architecture student Dan Hatch designed a plan to turn the space into an area for visual and performing arts. He and a couple of urban development students walked the 2-mi. stretch and developed plans they have presented to Cincinnati Tomorrow groups.
“Our proposal didn’t alter too much what is existing,” Hatch explained. “Whoever built it, built it well. It’s just waiting for finishing materials to be put on that concrete.”
Barry Gee, executive director of Cincinnati Tomorrow, said part of the reason the group continues the tours is to show people the wasted space. That, and the tours are incredibly popular. He said entire families have shown up — kids, parents and grandparents.
“It’s interesting to hear people say they’ve heard about the subway, but they believe it is a myth until they see the note that we give tours,” Gee said. “We’ve taken close to 300 people, and [we took] another 100 on March 30. Demand is not waning.”
Hatch noted that the whole story is fascinating. First the canal fails, then the subway, and now Central Parkway — which was supposed to be a “grand boulevard” in the center of the city’s business district.
The shafts of light that come into the subway cast an ethereal glow. It’s likely the subway will remain unchanged for another 80 years, despite the wishful thinking that surrounds its potential future uses.
Singer doubts the subway will ever be used, but it’s a captivating story even after all these years.
(This article appears courtesy of “CIN Weekly.)