Train to Nowhere

How Cincinnati tried, and failed, to build one of America’s first subways

By Andrew J. Hawkins | Photography by Andrew Spear

It’s early June in Cincinnati and the city is steamy after a recent rain. Elderly women fan themselves at bus stops. Tattooed tweakers panhandle in Fountain Square. Men in sweat-stained oxford shirts line up for lunch at Skyline Chili. Downtown is threadbare and lightly populated — everyone is either in their temperature-controlled offices or sitting in their cars, windows up, AC blasting, immune to the outside world.

Like many Midwestern cities, Cincinnati's public transit system has seen better times. On an average day, only 55,000 trips in Cincinnati are made on public buses — the city’s only mode of public transportation — in a metropolitan region of over 2 million people. The city ranks 46th among the 50 most populous cities in terms of ridership. And public transit use continues to fall: recently, the city has considered downsizing to smaller buses on some of its routes.

Which is not to say Cincinnati is some transit backwater. It has its own bike-share program; it has Uber and Lyft; and come September, it will cut the ribbon on a brand-new streetcar system. It’s just that in Cincinnati, the car is still king. In 2014, Cincinnatians spent an additional 60 hours behind the wheel because of traffic congestion. When I ask Michael Moore, the city’s head of transportation, what he was doing to encourage people to ditch their cars for cleaner modes of transit, he disagreed with the premise of my question. "I don’t think it’s important to get people out of their cars," he says. "I think it’s important that we offer people choice."

But under the streets of Cincinnati lies the vestige of a different vision — sealed underneath heavy manholes, hidden behind ivy-draped steel gates, and kept out of the public eye by the city’s highest officials. This is the city’s abandoned subway system, nearly three miles of empty tunnels and platforms now decorated in dust and graffiti. It is a vast subterranean space that stands as a monument to one of the biggest transportation blunders of all time. Had it been completed, the rapid transit system could have transformed Cincinnati. Instead, a decade after the project broke ground it was canceled, never to be completed. It is the nation’s largest ghost subway.

Americans have a capricious attitude toward transportation infrastructure. We green-light passenger rail projects, only to mothball them once the money dries up, or the political winds shift. Canceling much-needed transit projects has become a blood sport in this country. Baltimore’s Red Line, the ARC Tunnel between New York and New Jersey, Florida’s high-speed rail corridor, and the M-1 light-rail line in Detroit are just a few recent examples of transit projects that met untimely deaths or were severely scaled down in the name of saving taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, the subway systems that were built at the turn of the 20th century are rapidly reaching the end of their natural shelf life. Passengers in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston cram themselves onto increasingly crowded trains, fight for space on station platforms, and suffer an endless cycle of closures and repairs. A torrential waterfall cascades down a staircase of the DC Metro. Lightning strikes a Blue Line train station in Chicago. Videos of both go viral and are held up as larger metaphors about the decline of our subway systems.

Carpooling!, the startups shout. Sharing rides! Sharing cars! Sharing the seats in our cars! But the apps on our phones will only get us so far. And as more people trend toward cities and away from their cars, there has never been a more pressing need for clean, sustainable, affordable, and functional public transportation.

It would be nice to think that of the story of the Cincinnati subway as an anomaly, a rare instance of a good transportation idea that met an ignominious end thanks to bad politics or a crazy twist of fate. But it wasn’t — it was the first in a long line of transit failures that have haunted our history ever since.

Built in 1933, Cincinnati's Union Terminal train station is a beautiful, imposing art deco relic that, for the last 20 years, has been left to crumble. At its peak in the 1940s, the station handled up to 216 trains a day. Today it’s home to a dilapidated IMAX theater (currently closed for repairs), and the Cincinnati Museum Center (also closed). Until recently, the only way to see Cincinnati’s abandoned subway was to take one of the museum’s paid tours. But no longer, thanks to the city’s recent decision to restrict the public’s access out of liability concerns.

The subway tunnels have been designated "a confined space," unsafe for the public. Recently a cameraman filming a documentary fell off one of the platforms, and had to be evacuated on a gurney. It took three EMTs with rope to get him out.

Visiting Cincinnati’s abandoned subway today is nearly impossible. Over the years, the city has done a magnificent job of obliterating almost any above-ground vestiges, save for a handful of innocuous grates embedded in the sidewalk along Central Parkway. Station portals were bulldozed. Tunnels bricked up. Overpasses knocked down. Hardly anyone is left alive who remembers the rise and fall of the subway firsthand. There’s no way into the tunnels — unless you know where to look.

In 2010, Jake Mecklenborg released a book cheekily titled Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway: The Complete History. A native Cincinnatian, Mecklenborg has made preserving the memory of the subway his life’s work. Over a decade of research, he’s become obsessed with answering the "crazy and endlessly frustrating" question of why Cincinnati’s leaders pulled the plug on the subway after finishing nearly a third of it.

On that bright June day, I meet Mecklenborg outside my hotel. He has dark hair, an imposing forehead, and an encyclopedic knowledge of his hometown. To Mecklenborg, every corner of the city tells a story — "an emotional landscape you can’t avoid," he says. As we hop into his Ford Focus and drive to the only section of the subway that’s still sort of accessible, Mecklenborg points out traces of a Cincinnati long gone: this is West McMicken Avenue, where the prostitutes used to assemble in the ‘70s; this is the site of the now defunct Sears garden tiller factory. As we drive, Mecklenborg asks if I mind getting my shoes dirty. No, I do not mind at all. He asks if I mind some light trespassing. Nope.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America couldn’t get enough rapid transit. Inventor Alfred Ely Beach helped kick off a nationwide building frenzy in 1870, when he revealed that the secretive postal tube project he was working on under New York City’s Broadway was actually an underground pneumatic transit prototype. The city elders were aghast, but the public loved it. Boston’s Tremont Street Subway, which opened in 1897, became the nation’s first functional rapid transit tunnel. Seven years later, New York City’s Interborough Rapid Transit line first opened, and would grow into one of the largest, most heavily trafficked subway systems in the world. In 1907, Philadelphia opened its subway, which ran on both elevated and underground tracks. At the time, fares were just a nickel.

By April 1916, Cincinnati was itching to join the party. A $6 million bond issue for the construction of a project that would come to be called the Rapid Transit Loop was proposed. The plan was to build 16 miles of subway tunnels encircling the city using obsolete canals, unpopulated hillsides, and ravines.

The subway would help Cincinnati reclaim its status as a boom town. In 1850, the city had nearly surpassed Boston and Philadelphia in terms of population and density. But a lack of flood-proof land — Cincinnati is boxed in by the Ohio River to the south, and hills to the north, east, and west — led industrialists to turn their attention to fledging St. Louis and Chicago. A subway, civic leaders promised, could help Cincinnati grow its borders and regain what it lost.

"This is the final word of the Citizens’ Rapid Transit Loop Committee," one ad published in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune read. "We believe that the city we love, our home, is at the turning point, and that with the coming of Rapid Transit we will have the beginning of a Greater, More Prosperous, Healthier and Happier Cincinnati. We believe that a Vote for the Loop is a Vote for the best interests of all of us, and it is with pride that we state that every newspaper in the city is for the Loop, and practically all of the Business organizations as well as the Trades Unions."

"Old Cincinnati said ‘Can’t,’" the headline blared, "New Cincinnati says ‘I Will.’"

Voters enthusiastically agreed and the project won with overwhelming support. The proposed loop around Cincinnati was to be 16 miles long, with the underground portion running north along the partially drained Miami and Erie Canal to the Brighton neighborhood. There, it would surface through the Mill Creek valley to the suburb of Saint Bernard. It would hook east through heavily industrial Norwood and south through Oakley and Evanston to the river, where it would run along an elevated railway back into the downtown area. The design was based on the specifications of Boston’s Cambridge-Dorchester line, which began operation in 1912. In total, 20 stations, both above and below ground, would be built.

After a complicated legal fight over the subway’s lease ordinance, construction officially began in late 1920. The first ground was broken at the intersection of Walnut Street and what would eventually become Central Parkway. But even at the outset, construction went very slowly, thanks to a shortage in construction materials in the wake of World War I.

The planning itself was shoddy. Houses along the planned route began to crumble, with foundations cracking and porches falling off. Lawsuits started to pile up. Then Prohibition went into effect, closing many of the city’s breweries and taverns, imperiling the city’s finances. The plan for the subway was downsized, with the entire eastern branch of the loop completely scrapped.

When the bonds ran out and the money dried up in 1927, only seven miles of tunnels had been completed. Meanwhile, the boulevard that ran on top of the subway, Central Parkway, officially opened that same year to much fanfare. Suddenly, automobiles were all the rage, while the subway that ran underneath them was increasingly becoming Cincinnati’s white elephant.

But more than war or a booze ban, Mecklenborg argues that it was politics that killed the subway. When it was first approved, Cincinnati was controlled by a political machine run by George "Boss" Cox, a former saloon owner, and his unscrupulous cronies (mostly bartenders) on the city council. These were guys who would casually "switch" religions — from Protestant to Catholic, depending on which district they were in — in order to appeal to the local voters. After his death in 1916, Cox was replaced as head of the machine by a burlesque owner, who managed to run Cincinnati’s government while living full-time in New York City.

Reform, in the form of a Harvard-trained lawyer named Murray Seasongood, swept through Cincinnati in the late 1920s. After his election to city manager, Seasongood passed new laws to weaken the mayor’s office and city council. The Rapid Transit Loop became a symbol of the old machine’s corruption and cronyism. Newspapers pounced, proclaiming the slow-going construction project "a botch." The trains were too big for the tunnels and the curves were too sharp, they reported. Nevermind that both claims were easily disprovable.

In January 1929, Seasongood oversaw the dissolution of the Rapid Transit Commission, transferring its authority over the construction project to his office. Nine months later, the stock market tanked and the nation took a nosedive into depression.

"It was at its core a work that would have benefited the public good, even though it was conceived and built during a period of boss rule," Mecklenborg says. "The project was undermined by a reform movement that disguised itself as grassroots even though it was orchestrated by the area's blue blood families to take back control from a machine which rose from and was comprised almost entirely of men of lower class origins."

We pull over on Hopple Street and get out. A quick dash across Central Parkway and we stand before a locked and rusted chain-link fence. Some fellow trespasser had cut a hole to the side, so we squeeze through, careful to avoid the jagged metal of the fence.

With tractor-trailers rumbling down the interstate just a few yards away, we make our way down the trash-strewn path and through a thick, almost impenetrable wall of foliage toward the tunnel entrance. We have to be careful; the guys who own the nearby gas station are known to call the cops if they see anyone snooping around.

This tunnel, known as the Hopple Street Tunnel, was excavated in 1926 and 1927, a full year after the city had promised the Rapid Transit Loop was to be completed and fully operational, and two years before the entire project would grind to a halt. It is the incomplete subway’s northernmost point. At the time, the subway’s cancellation was thought to be just temporary. None of the city’s leaders at the time, not even Seasongood, actually believed it would remain forever fallow.

The tunnel’s entrance is barely visible through the brush. A machete would have been useful, and a broom — empty, sun-bleached beer cans, soiled blankets, and shattered glass carpet the ground, making for difficult terrain. A weather-beaten bible sits atop an overturned bucket at the mouth of the tunnel. "Forgive men their trespasses," it reads.

Mecklenborg uses a large tree branch to swipe away the spider webs. Flashlight in hand, he wastes little time plunging into the depths. He’s been down here before, dozens of times. He was 18 the first time he went spelunking in Cincinnati’s man-made caverns. He wanted to create his own website — this was in the heady days of the dot-com bubble — and thought some pictures of Cincinnati’s creepy, cool abandoned subway would make for compelling online content.

The light recedes behind us. I was told this would be a short trip, but we are already more than 400 feet deep into this tunnel. He shouts "Hey!" to make our presence known to any homeless people that may be using the tunnel as a shelter. The Hopple Street Tunnel is an ideal place for anyone without a permanent address: sleeping bags and muddy clothing are strewn throughout.

The idea of accidentally stepping on a slumbering body gives me sudden vertigo. My imagination kicks into overdrive. Cincinnati’s subway tunnels are not haunted — as far as I can tell — but Cincinnatians love to tell stories about hearing footsteps or seeing moving shadows while exploring the subway. Some tell stories of being chased from the tunnels by an unseen presence. I flick on my phone’s flashlight, half expecting to see a bearded face with bloodshot eyes suddenly appear before me. But all I see was Mecklenborg’s back as he strides deeper into the tunnel.

My flashlight sweeps over an ominous message scrawled in murder-black paint on the tunnel wall: "Back up motherfucker." I resist the urge to comply.

About three miles from the Hopple St. Tunnel, Cincinnati’s City Hall does a bad job at blending into the skyline. It’s a Romanesque castle among otherwise bland Midwestern architecture, capped with soaring arches and a grand clock tower. Inside, magnificent stained-glass depictions of the city’s history line the stairwell. Not included among them is the political squabbling that ultimately led to the demise of the subway. Not exactly the type of story that looks good in stained glass.

Moore, Cincinnati’s genial director of transportation and engineering, has a spacious office on the fourth floor. Rolled up schematics and blueprints are stacked against the wall. A framed child’s painting sits on his desk.

I ask Moore if the subway is still, decades later, such a huge embarrassment for Cincinnati that they’d rather shove out of sight. Moore dismissed that out of hand, though he remains unsentimental about the city’s ghost subway. "Subways are great," he says with a grin. "But, and maybe it’s just because I’m too close to it, but for me it’s a long basement."

The subway wasn’t just the end of Cincinnati’s mass transportation dreams, it also marked the end of the first chapter in America’s rapid transit story. It was the last subway project of the pre-World War II era. The automobile, once a toy for the rich, suddenly became cheaper and more accessible to the middle class. Taxpayer money that would have gone toward tunnels and train tracks was instead spent on roads, bridges, and highways.

The second chapter wouldn’t start until 30 years later, when San Francisco’s BART train broke ground in the mid-1960s. Washington’s Metro followed soon after. A handful of cities that had done without subways, including Baltimore, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, embraced rapid-transit and light-rail projects. The memory of Cincinnati’s shame had faded, and America was ready to fall in love with mass transportation again.

All those metro systems are today in varying stages of disarray. New York, Washington, and Boston are home to the three busiest subway systems in the nation, and all three currently need billions of dollars to make crucial repairs and meet rising demand. Ten of the nation's largest public transit agencies face a collective repair backlog of $102 billion, according to the Regional Plan Association. That means that nearly one-fifth of the US population is standing on crumbling train platforms, waiting for out-of-date buses, or coping with more frequent delays due to mechanical problems.

The Canarsie Tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn serves 225,000 passengers a day. But thanks to Hurricane Sandy, the tunnel will need to shut down for 18 months for repairs. And the MTA’s first major expansion in decades, the Second Avenue Subway, is mired in cost overruns and delays. Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move last March, the entire DC Metro shut down for a whole day to address safety concerns. Gridlock, austerity, an allergy to tax increases and debt — all make for a toxic stew in which our urban transit systems are sinking.

New projects to replace the old, falling apart systems run into a different kind of problem: self-sabotage. Baltimore’s Red Line is a perfect example. A 14-mile light-rail line to connect the city’s impoverished west side to its more affluent east side, the project was weeks away from breaking ground in 2015 when Maryland’s Republican governor dubbed it a "boondoggle" and pulled the plug. The same thing happened to the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel, recently described by President Obama as the most important infrastructure project in the country. It became the pawn in a political pissing contest, and eventually bit the dust.

"These rail services are expensive, quite frankly," Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the 95-year-old Eno Center for Transportation, told me. "They're expensive to build, they're expensive to operate, and when you do them right, they can have enormously positive implications on regional economies. And if you do them wrong, they can be a big white elephant."

In 2002, Cincinnati’s voters had a chance to resurrect their incomplete subway, to transform it from a graveyard of embarrassment to a linchpin in a multi-billion dollar transit plan. The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority proposed a ballot referendum called Metro Moves, which would have created an extensive light-rail system incorporating the three remaining 1920s-era subway stations at Liberty, Brighton, and Hopple streets.

In many ways, Metro Moves was more ambitious than the original Rapid Transit Loop. It included seven light-rail lines and 72 stations, at a total cost of $2.7 billion. While the federal government would have covered the bulk, Hamilton County (which encompasses Cincinnati) residents were asked to approve a half-cent sales tax levy to cover their portion. Just like they had a century ago, local businesses endorsed the plan, as well as environmentalists and good government groups. Supporters blanketed the airwaves with positive ads in favor of Metro Moves, and dominated opponents during numerous public debates.

Metro Moves was the result of a decade-long effort to bring light rail to Cincinnati. Moreover, it was the city’s chance to erase the stain left behind by their unfinished subway project. But Hamilton County residents rejected Metro Moves in a 2-to-1 vote, with over 68 percent voting against the project.

Wedged between the Fort Washington freeway trench and the Ohio River, a stone’s throw from the city’s baseball park and football stadium, sits the Riverfront Transit Center, a two-story tall, half-mile long underground concrete tube opened in 2003. That makes it one of the largest transit stations in the world. It is also another failed Cincinnati public transportation project: most of the time it sits completely empty.

When it was envisioned, planners thought that the transit center would be a hub where light-rail lines — if Cincinnati ever got around to building them — could converge. In the meantime, the massive underground transit station would serve as a pick-up and drop-off location for public and private buses, as well as special shuttles during game days. Today, the above-ground portals are locked and the driveway leading up to the main entrance is closed for 275 days out of the year. Though I’m told the center is lined with subway tiles and mosaic art, I wasn’t allowed inside.

"It is an orphaned station," a Channel 9 reporter mused in a 2011 investigative piece on the station’s underutilization. No rail lines currently run to the Riverfront Transit Center, and it’s only open during during major events. Public metro buses are left to do their pick-ups and drop-offs at street level.

With a $48 million price tag, the transit center has been enough of a money pit to turn once ardent supporters into foes. Former Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken, who helped cut the ribbon on the Riverfront Transit Center in 2003, now calls it the biggest waste of money he’s ever seen. "The only reason there's not more outrage about it," Luken told Channel 9, "is because people don't know it's there."

When I ask him about the Riverfront Transit Center, Dan Hurley, a local historian and civic leader, almost chokes on his water. "Underutilized is such a kind word," he says. "Boondoggle is the one I hear more often."

What is it about Cincinnati that it served as the setting for not one, but two multi-million transportation fiascos? Most of the Cincinnatians I spoke to shrug off the question, insisting that the forces that gave rise to both the subway and the transit center have nothing in common. The subway was never finished, while the transit center is complete, if underutilized.

In September, the city will cut the ribbon on its new streetcar system. Many Cincinnatians are excited for their fancy new streetcars. Others remain opposed, including Cincinnati mayor John Cranley, who calls it a waste of money and "a mistake." In 2013, Cranley tried to stop the streetcar, but the city council, perhaps realizing the horrible irony involved in canceling another half-complete transportation project, overruled him.

Recently, the city realized it was losing money by keeping its empty spaces like the Riverfront Transit Center empty for most of the year. In October, the station will be unlocked and the gates flung open for Ubahn, a two-day hip-hop and EDM musicfest. (The German word "U-bahn" translates as an underground rapid transit or metro.) The organizers are billing it as the "the first underground music festival in Cincinnati."

New York City transformed an abandoned elevated train track into a world-class park. It’s now doing the same for an empty trolley terminal in Manhattan. The High Line begat the Lowline. If the Ubahn is successful, could the Cincinnati subway be far behind?

Moore says no. "We’ve had people approach us about using the tunnel for everything from grain malting, to a water bottling operation, to nightclubs — you name it." None of these ideas will work, though. There’s no way the subway can accommodate thousands of sweaty club kids. The floor is uneven, there are pillars, and the water main, which was installed in the 1950s, leaks constantly.

Which is not to say the tunnels aren’t in good condition. In 2008, the city was faced with a choice: spend $100.5 million to revive the tunnels for modern subway use, $19 million to fill the tunnels with dirt, or $2.6 million to simply maintain them as an abandoned space. After two years of debate, the city went with the cheapest option. The subway houses a water main, as well as fiber optic cables. And with Central Parkway running directly above, the tunnels needed to be refortified to keep the street safe.

Today, most people don’t know why the subway was never finished. Even Murray Seasongood, the posh city manager who was most responsible for its demise, didn’t seem to understand his own role in the boondoggle. When he was researching his book, Mecklenborg stumbled across an old interview from the 1960s with Seasongood, who was in his 80s at the time. The interviewer, a college student from the University of Cincinnati, asked him if he regretted killing the subway. "He was very jovial, very enthusiastic," the student said of Seasongood. "But as for the details of the subway system, he could not recall them."

Back at Hopple Street, Mecklenborg and I emerge from the labyrinth, a little dirtier than when we entered but otherwise unharmed. Despite everything that he and his city have been through, he’s surprisingly indifferent to the decision to seal off the subway from the public forever. He thought that the tours were okay, but prone to misinformation. Maybe it’s better this way. "You can go on a tour of the subway, you can physically see it," he says, "but you still wouldn’t understand it."

Produced by Frank Bi

Design by James Bareham

Edited by Michael Zelenko