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Ghost Stories Part III: Cincinnati Subway
Publication Date
September 5th 2018

Much thought and planning go into the design of our cities and environments. While we only see the projects that reach completion, it is important to note that many designs and plans have come and gone before them. More often than imagined, major projects are started and never finished; they are left to be forgotten, holding secrets of the past and sharing insights into what could have been. This is the third post in a series about projects that share the same fate of abandonment and the bitter forgetfulness of the passing of time. These “ghost stories” provide a glimpse of just how different our nation’s built environment could have been if they had seen completion.


Cincinnati Subway

Hidden beneath Central Parkway in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, lies one of the city’s best kept secrets: a series of subway tunnels and stations left incomplete due to some of the worst timing in history. The subway was planned to be a 16-mile loop of track with 20 stations connecting downtown Cincinnati to the suburbs of Saint Bernard, Norwood, Oakley, and Evanston via the defunct remnants of the Miami and Erie Canals. 


The canals would hold tracks underground in true subway fashion, leading the route to surface at Mill Creek Valley and returning downtown via elevated rail from Evanston. A boulevard (Central Parkway) would be constructed at ground level above the tunnels for vehicle use downtown. While all of this was proposed in 1916, the subway didn’t start construction until the end of 1920 due to issues with lease ordinances. This would not be the first issue the subway would encounter.


Faced with material shortages following World War I, construction on the subway crawled and was delayed even further by poor planning. During construction, nearby buildings and structures faced fractured foundations and other issues, which sparked an onslaught of legal challenges. To make matters worse, Prohibition was soon passed, closing the many breweries and taverns of Cincinnati that were vital to the city’s financing.


With this unfortunate series of events, the eastern branch of the planned loop was scratched, permanently downsizing the plans. By 1927, the money ran out, leaving the subway with only seven miles of constructed tunnels and the newly-opened Central Parkway. With automobiles gaining popularity across the nation, the tunnels that laid beneath the parkway sat, a soon to be forgotten relic, with their fate sealed by the dissolution of the Rapid Transit Commission in January 1929 and the eventual stock market crash nine months later that plunged the country into the Great Depression.