ICYMI: Subway could have changed Cincinnati

Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 01, 2015
and last updated 2016-01-01 20:35:04-05

By: Brent Coleman

CINCINNATI — Few motorists heading east and west on Central Parkway know that more than two miles of abandoned subway exists directly below them.

Those that do probably spend little time thinking about the impact a completed 16-mile subway transit system would have made on this region.

PHOTOS: What's left of the abandoned subway

But the impacts of Cincinnati’s failed subway system — considered the nation’s longest abandoned subway — still reverberate today, 95 years after work on the project first began and more than 85 years after the project stalled.

And we’re not just talking about the city’s new mass transit project, the Cincinnati Streetcar.

What would a subway system have meant for Downtown, the suburbs and local industries? Less congestion in the city? More jobs and better housing in the suburbs? A stronger economy during the Great Depression?

Two Cincinnati Subway tunnel entrances, alongside Central Parkway and I-75

Just how different would Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky be today had the city-owned subway been finished?

Probably significantly different, answered two Cincinnati historians: David Stradling, UC professor and urban and environmental historian; and Patricia Van Skaik, manager of the Genealogy and Local History Collection at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The two historians predict more middle-class suburbs would have developed and certain communities would have been protected from residential flight and neglect. And the core city likely would have held on to businesses the Depression washed away.

Changing Where People Live, Prosper

The subway, which Stradling said should be referred to as “light rail” because it also included an above-ground presence, would have buoyed the population and affluence of communities such as Norwood, the northern West End, Brighton and Northside, all of which are located on or near the proposed subway route.


A map of the proposed subway line

As the subway planners hoped, elevated spurs likely would have shot off to the east early on, reaching Madisonville and Mariemont, a planned community which was developed in the 1920s after the first phase of subway construction from 1920 to 1923.

The subway would have helped “reverse commuting,” transporting a workforce living in the city to growing industrial areas such as the northern Mill Creek Valley, Norwood and Oakley. It would have given city dwellers the means to travel cheaply to jobs in communities on the subway route such as St. Bernard.

Other outlying neighborhoods and suburbs would have been “scrambling to have people connect by spoke to the (Downtown) streetcars,” Stradling said.

“The dense urban core might have stayed the dense urban core, but it didn’t,” Stradling said.

Van Skaik agreed the subway system would have affected the distribution of the area’s population, creating dense residential and business pockets near the subway’s 20 proposed stations.

Construction of the Cincinnati Subway underway.

The subway, Van Skaik said, could have glued together Cincinnati and communities like St. Bernard, Evendale, Sharonville, Middletown, Hamilton and Franklin.

“Sometimes we think of those villages as being separated and disconnected from Cincinnati,” Van Skaik said.

In addition, she said, the subway would have saved people money they could have put into better quality housing that would have held its value more.

Norwood, for example, might have become a thriving middle-class neighborhood where housing values might have increased instead of declining.

The subway would have created “affordable means for people to connect to the core but live outside the city limits” because they wouldn’t need an automobile, Van Skaik said.

Business Impacts

Instead, people moved out to new suburbs, and city business owners who stayed suffered during the Depression.

A 2010 documentary looked into the subway's history and uses for the tunnels.

Some even tore down their Downtown buildings and put up parking lots in order to pay their mortgages and taxes, Stradling said.

Ultimately, Spradling said, a spoke to the 1960s-built Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport would have been added, possibly spurring the economic boon Northern Kentucky didn’t experience for decades.

A straight connection from the airport to the core city might have made Cincinnati a center for big conventions like Atlanta, he said.

Visitors can fly in to suburban Atlanta, catch an inexpensive train to the city center, where the convention center is located, without ever having to pay for a rental car or taxi.


Subway History

But the subway never materialized, despite strong initial support for the project.

In the early 1900s, the city’s downtown business leaders called for action because of concern about increased congestion on the streets.

“Cincinnati is getting to be way behind the times,” Wilson Paint and Glass Co. was quoted by the Cincinnati Enquirer as saying. “It’s time to wake up and do something.”

University of Cincinnati President Charles W. Dabney agreed, saying a subway system could reduce greatly the two hours students who lived in outlying neighborhoods spent commuting on public transportation to and from the Clifton campus.

“Cincinnati is getting to be way behind the times. It’s time to wake up and do something.”

Cincinnati’s solution was to build a subway like the one Boston opened in 1897, but also like the elevated “L” Chicago opened in 1892.

The people of Cincinnati supported the rapid transit system proposed in 1914, overwhelmingly passing a $6 million bond issue to fund a subway in 1916. Construction of the 16-mile below- and above-ground rail system began in 1920, stopped in 1923 and resumed for a short while in 1927.

Then it was abandoned. No tracks had been laid or cars purchased. No main station had been built as planned near Fountain Square.

Talk about the subway more or less ceased during the Great Depression, and, eventually, the project fell to forgotten status.

An unused Cincinnati Subway station

Subway vs. Streetcar Comparison

Now, there’s a new mass transit system in the works.

But comparing the proposed subway and the streetcar is an apples-to-oranges proposition.

They’re of different scopes and times. The subway was to be 16 miles long (only 11 miles had been started), and the streetcar is just 3.6 miles long.

The subway never had tracks, cars or control lights. All three elements of the streetcar exist — the last tracks were laid Oct. 19 — or will soon.

The entrance to the underground station of the Cincinnati Subway at Central Parkway and Race Street, covered by metal plate doors, sits just feet away from the new streetcar tracks.

The subway’s budget was $6 million, but that money ran out and construction was halted in 1924. The streetcar’s budget is $147.8 million, and construction is ongoing with the goal of launching it in fall 2016.

All but 2.2 miles of the 16-mile subway were to be above ground, whereas all of the streetcar tracks are above ground.

The two systems’ routes only overlap on Walnut Street between Fourth Street and Central Parkway and on Central Parkway between Walnut and Race streets.

There will be 18 streetside stops on the streetcar route, which extends from Second and Walnut streets into Over-the-Rhine past Findlay Market and back. The subway was to have 20 substantial stations, the northernmost in St. Bernard near where the Norwood Lateral is today.

Where the two systems are similar is in their projected cost. The inflation converter at calculates that the subway’s $6 million budget of 1916 is equivalent to $131 million in today’s dollars, which is about 10 percent less than the streetcar budget.

One must keep in mind, however, that the subway was far from being completed. The $6 million bond that paid for it, however, was paid off in 1966. With taxes and interest included, the unfinished subway ended up costing Cincinnati $13 million in 1916 greenbacks, according to the city’s website. That equates to $308 million in 2015 money.

Proposals to Use the Subway

Since 1966, many uses for the abandoned subway tunnels have been proposed but never happened. Among them:

  • A plan by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to hold a massive Communion ceremony there
  • A plan by Meier Winery of Silverton to use part of the subway to bottle, store and sell wine
  • A proposal for the subway to become a shopping mall
  • A plan to film “Batman Forever” scenes there

View our interactive timeline of the history of the Cincinnati subway system