Cincinnati’s Sprawling Ghost World

Buried beneath the streets of Cincinnati, where layers of cement and substratum muffle the rumbles of buses and cars passing overhead, a warren of empty tunnels forms a two-mile underworld that has gone untouched for a century. This is the derelict infrastructure for the nation’s largest abandoned subway system: to this day, it has never carried a single passenger.

The story of the Cincinnati subway begins shortly after the Civil War, when the Miami-Erie Canal–at one time a radiant paragon of the industriousness of the American spirit–devolved into a state of utter disuse. Despite their multi-million dollar price tag, the canal systems that ferried trade and cargo through the Midwest came up short against the sheer force and efficacy of railways. Eventually, where barges and tugboats had once bellied out across the waterways, canal beds served as partially drained cradles for sewage and disease-laden mosquito colonies.

In 1884, the Cincinnati Graphic published an illustration that depicted a train barreling down the empty channels of Miami-Erie, its path paved with new tracks that tunneled into the city. By the end of the century, citizens relied on a system of streetcars that ran on electric tracks to shuttle them from the bustling downtown to fledgling suburbs, but collisions with horse-drawn buggies, early automobiles, and pedestrians became an all-too-common occurrence.

The first looped rapid transit route was finally proposed by Bion Arnold, one of the nation’s renowned electric railroad consultants, in 1912. In his report, Arnold outlined 15.56 total miles of subway line, seven of which would be subterranean, with the other eight running above ground. The open-air route would include twenty bridges, even rising high above the Ohio River Bluff on a 6,100 foot concrete trestle.

Arnold also detailed a second line, which would form an enclosed loop around Cincinnati’s business district. “The prosperity and permanence of [the district],” he wrote, “largely depends upon conveying the residents of the City to and from their houses in the shortest time and with the least inconvenience.”

The route that was chosen ultimately combined elements of both proposals, including service to Norwood, Oakley, and Hyde Park, and running parallel to the Ohio River. After the initial $12 million budget was reduced to $6 million in 1916, Cincinnati voters approved of the project, with over 80 percent in favor.

And so arrived the first delay. America entered into the World War I in the following year, at which time Congress placed a bar on municipal bonds, effectively freezing any opportunity to pursue construction until 1920. But by the time the war had ended, inflation drove the value of the US dollar down and labor costs tripled, rendering the $6 million allotted budget entirely insufficient.

For five years, the city forged ahead with construction efforts, finishing two of six underground miles and completing four stations.

When the Charter Party took control of Cincinnati’s City Hall in 1926, Mayor Murray Seasongood seized the project from the county and delegated it to the city. But nobody wanted to further pursue a project that would necessitate another estimated $10 million, and three years later, the onset of the Great Depression definitively sealed the fate of Cincinnati’s unfinished rapid transit system.

Several initiatives to revive construction were attempted, but with limited resources and a strained political climate, none took root. Most of the entrances to the underground have since been sealed, save to those who know how to find a way in.

Engineer Paul Koenig was among the many explorers who crept unseen into the cavernous network of subterranean passageways in the late 1980’s.

“Somewhere downtown the tunnels made a turn to follow the flow of Central Parkway,” he recounted. There, he and his friends uncovered a haunting artifact of mid-20th century political turmoil. In an abandoned station, a pristine Cold War-era nuclear fallout shelter remained untouched, complete with decontamination showers, vats of pre-prepared meals, 55-gallon casks of water, and a phone jack that could dial out to anywhere in the world.

“It was all pretty nuts for 20-year-old kids to wander into,” he said.

Koenig laments that the quashing of the subway’s construction resulted in an enormous loss to the city of Cincinnati. “When you compare almost any city in Europe to a Midwestern car-centric city there is no comparison in the quality of life.”

In recognition of the urgent need for improvements to public transportation in Cincinnati, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority proposed a 30-year regional light-rail project in 2002. The initiative, called MetroMoves, would have demanded a half-cent tax increase, and was promptly defeated by citizens of Hamilton County by almost two-to-one.

Despite this setback, the city has undertaken a $147.81 million street car system that will run a 3.6 mile circuit around key neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati. Construction is still underway.

All the while, the dark tunnels and vacant platforms of the Cincinnati subway fall deeper into ruin, a forgotten network of ghostly arteries stilled beneath the heart of the city.

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