The demise of Cincinnati's subway is one of the biggest missed opportunities in the city's history.  While the subway and Rapid Transit Loop would likely have done little to boost population, there is no doubt it would have affected city physically and culturally in numerous positive ways.  We can be certain that the route of I-75, I-71, and the Norwood Lateral could not have been built as they exist today, since they all occupy land that was graded or was planned to be utilized by the transit loop.  Under Schme IV, land where Ft. Washington Way and the 3rd St. Viaduct now stand was planned for a viaduct connecting the subway's portal at 3rd & Walnut and Mt. Adams. 

Also, with the underground passage built at the Race St. station, and the elaborate passages planned for the never-built Fountain Square station, it is possible that the the city would have developed a network of underground connections similar to Philadelphia's, and the Cincinnati Skywalk, which was built in the 1970's and 80's, would have been unnecessary.

Additionally, had the proposed downtown trolley loop been built, it would have been among the most unusual pieces of transit infrastructure in the world, and after such as large capital investment and assuming that it could not be converted for diesel buses, we can be sure that a system perhaps more elaborate than Boston's Green Line trolley subway would still be in operation. 

We can only speculate on how the subway would have affected local culture, especially considering the physical variables mentioned above, but it can be reasonably assumed that it would have given Cincinnati more of a big city atmosphere. Also worth noting is that the system would be among the nation's few pre-WWII subways, contemporary with the New York, Boston, and Philadelphia subways, all of which have much more character than the newer ones. 

Cincinnati's hills, thousands of surviving buildings from the 1800's, and eccentric street layout will always set it apart from the region's other cities.  But if the rapid transit loop and subway had opened in the 1920's, the city would not only have had a wold-class transit system, but a great source of identity.

The eastern half of the line would have paralleled the river uphill from Columbia Parkway,
providing one of the most dramatic views from any transit line in the United States.
[Jake Mecklenborg November 2004]

Visiting the Subway
The tunnel under the Zumbiel Packaging Building in Norwood had no barriers to keep people out. There was not much to see, and after the tunnel's filling in 2004 there is nothing to see at all other than the sealed portals.

Entering the Hopple St. tunnel requires a pretty dangerous climb through a hole the portal fencing, and there is not much to see here either. The two mile tunnel under Central Parkway is however quite interesting and a walk through it is something not soon forgotten.

A tour of the two mile tunnel today, as one might expect, is a surreal experience. As the tubes are just below street level, the sounds of automobiles, police sirens, and even sidewalk conversations can be heard through the vents, and the tunnels have that musty "subway smell". Surprisingly, the 80 year old tunnels and stations, while certainly not modern, do not look exceptionally old. The expected major cracks, fallen chunks, and dripping water are rarely seen. If the excessive dust was swept off the floor and lighting installed, the general appearance would hardly differ from a typical underground parking garage. It doesn't take an expert to see that the subway was built to last 100 years, and will probably last quite a while longer than that.

As of this writing in spring 2000, official permission to tour the subway is granted by Prem Garg at city hall, who can be reached at (513) 352-5216. The Cincinnati Historical Society periodically also gives official tours and slide lectures, so call the Cincinnati Historical Society to sign up for the next one, assuming they are having another one. Be warned though, as the last tour was $50 for non-members.

Update 5/17/04: The organization Cincinnati Tomorrow now operates periodic public tours.  Visit their site at

Update 12/03/04:
Cincinnati Tomorrow is no longer organizing tours. 
Do not email me asking who is. 
I don't know.

Photographing the Subway

If you have the opportunity to tour the subway and want to take photographs, it is essential that an attachable flash is used -- the wimpy flashes on point-and-shoot cameras just won't get the job done. For the photos seen on this web page, I used a typical SLR with a typical attachable flash, and Kodak Royal Gold 100 speed (this film has since been discontinued, but any 100 speed film will work fine), and 28mm lens. You don't need a tripod and you don't need 400 or 1000 speed film. The beams from flash lights won't show up when a photo is taken, so don't worry about that either. I also suggest either using a manual focus camera or putting an AF lens in manual mode, because in the subway the focus will always be close to infinity.

Digital Camera update:
When this website was introduced in 1999, and these photos taken in the summer of 2000, digital cameras barely existed.  Most of you touring the place will be using digital cameras, but some of the rules mentioned above still apply.  On-camera flashes from digital point-and-shoots aren't going to be any better than those on film cameras.  You'll still be frustrated without a larger flash.  Also, the autofocus will focus inaccurately much of the time.

Section 1  Planning and construction
Section 2  Completion attempts
Section 3  The subway today
Section 4  Various proposals
Section 5  What might have been
Section 6  Future use

Construction Photos
Portal Photos
Brighton Station Photos
Linn St. Station Photos
Liberty St. Station Photos
Race St. Station Photos
Hopple St. Tunnel
Norwood Tunnels
1950's Photo Tour
Early Subway Plans and Diagrams
Subway Maps

Back to