Like an opening to a nightmarish underworld, the portal is steeped in filth and blackness. Beyond it lies a subterranean network of dank and dismal tunnels, sprawling for miles beneath this famous American city. Would you dare to go wandering in this grim urban labyrinth?
Abandoned for almost a century, the tunnels are rarely visited, let alone documented. Indeed, only vagrants, vandals and urban explorers care to venture inside. That said, it looks relatively simple to get in. From the cavernous mouth at the surface, a flight of steps leads down into darkness…
Once inside, the tunnels extend ahead of you for two miles beneath the city’s downtown area. At average walking speeds, you might traverse them in just under an hour… that is, if you’re lucky enough not to get lost. But with little to distinguish the uniformly bleak concrete passageways, one could easily become disorientated in the echoes and blackness.
That said, there is much more to this hidden underworld than mere empty tunnels. Dispersed throughout the gloomy warren are a number of dilapidated rooms and chambers. Evidently once part of some rambling subterranean facility, they are now largely vacant. However, piles of abandoned building materials, discarded litter and scrawls of graffiti can still be discerned in the shadows.
The tunnels themselves, meanwhile, are far from ruined. Indeed, while swathes of green and black mold appear to evidence water damage, the walls are structurally sound. There are no cracks, no piles of bricks, no crumbling dilapidation. So, although this underground maze is largely ignored by the world at the surface, it was certainly built to last.
The tunnels, in fact, are located beneath the Midwestern city of Cincinnati, home to more than two million people. Perched on the Ohio River in southwestern Ohio, the city has been a permanent feature of the landscape since 1788. But why did municipal authorities build a network of tunnels beneath its surface?
The answer to that question lies more than one hundred years in the past. Once upon a time, around the turn of the 19th century, Cincinnati was one of the most economically important cities in the United States. Indeed, it was actually on a par with New York and Chicago. And in 1888, the introduction of electric streetcar technology heralded a new dawn for mass transit in the city.
So, in 1916, in an effort to alleviate city-center congestion, a plan to convert the obsolete Miami and Erie Canal into a 16-mile-long fast-transit loop was approved by Cincinnati voters. “Every newspaper in the city is for the Loop,” announced one advertisement in favor of the project. “And practically all of the business organizations as well as the trades unions…”
In fact, the proposed 16-mile loop was designed to integrate interurban railways and a bold new local subway system. Delayed by the advent of the First World War, construction of Cincinnati’s innovative – but ultimately doomed – subway finally began in 1920. The projected cost was $6 million. However, not everything went to plan.
For one, post-war inflation saw the cost of construction double. And when engineering mistakes caused the foundations of some buildings at the surface to crack, public support for the loop began to wane. Soon there was political infighting. And the Great Depression only exacerbated problems.
In short, there was no more money to complete the system. What’s more, as motor vehicles gained popularity, critics of the loop became increasingly vocal, dubbing the system “Cincinnati’s White Elephant.” Ultimately, then, the project was abandoned. So today, Cincinnati is home to the world’s biggest unused subway network.
The unfinished system included seven stations: three of them above ground, four of them beneath. However, by the 1960s, the age of the automobile was in full swing and the city’s streetcar system had been decommissioned. Meanwhile, the three metro stations above ground were demolished to make space for the I-75 freeway.
Underground, however, four stations have survived in varying states of disrepair. One of them is Race Street station. Intended as a central hub for interurban trains and trolleys, this was the largest and most important of the underground stops. Here, it is possible to see a central platform “island” flanked by parallel tracks.
However, nothing beats Liberty Street Station for sheer intrigue. In the 1980s, engineering student Paul Koenig was exploring the station when he stumbled upon a nuclear bunker. Describing his experience to the Atlas Obscura website in 2016, he claimed to have seen stocks of ready-to-eat meals, barrels of water, bunk beds and decontamination showers.
Whether or not the tunnels are deep enough to withstand a nuclear blast is debatable, but it is apparent that they are in good shape. In fact, since they are situated beneath a major thoroughfare – the Central Parkway – the city is obliged to maintain them. What’s more, they were found to be basically sound in a 2008 study by URS Corporation.
As such, over the years there have been a number of ideas and proposals for utilizing the subway (though perhaps none as outlandish as transforming it into a nuclear bunker). These include using the tunnels as a wine cellar and converting them to a mall and night club. In fact, Hollywood has occasionally used the subway as a film set, perhaps most notably in Batman Forever.
In 2002, meanwhile, a plan called “Metro Moves” proposed a radical overhaul of the city’s rail transit systems. However, voters rejected the proposal by two to one. Factors for its failure included a recent half-cent sales tax rise to pay for other public projects, as well as concerted opposition campaigns by the Alternatives to Light Rail Transit group.
Nonetheless, after much political wrangling, the city did launch a new streetcar system in September 2016. The Cincinnati Bell Connector runs for 3.6 miles on a loop, connecting several downtown sites. This might signal a wider transformation of the city. Or it could merely indicate a minor streetcar renaissance.
But whether or not the subway ever finds a purpose, the problem of congestion in Cincinnati remains real and unresolved. Indeed, with the I-75 and I-71 often jammed with vehicles, the commute from the suburbs to the city center can take more than an hour. To date, Cincinnati is one of the largest cities in the United States without a functioning mass-transit rail system.
Furthermore, cleaner air and faster travel are not the only benefits of a functioning subway. One likely upshot of reviving the project would be the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. However, there are no approved plans to renovate the tunnels. For now, the unfinished subway beneath Cincinnati remains an urban curiosity.