Saturday, May 24, 2003

Life under the city

Subway legend has never left the station


Cincinnati's Titanic rests beneath Central Parkway. Only, it's not a ship. It's a subway system.

Now its strange, sad story can be told. Allen J. Singer's new book, The Cincinnati Subway (Arcadia, $19.99), presents the definitive history of a lost world, the controversial rapid transit system the city built but never used.

Cincinnati's still-born subway has much in common with the ill-fated ocean liner. Both offered great promise. Both now lie in watery graves. One at the bottom of the Atlantic. The other under the parkway's leaky roadbed.

At least the Titanic, which struck an iceberg and sank on its first trip, had a maiden voyage. Cincinnati's subway never went anywhere.

[IMAGE] During a guided tour Thursday morning Rickey Pryor 19, left, and Daphne Debardelaben 18, right, look east from the Race Street Station beneath Central Parkway at Race Street in the never completed Cincinnati subway. They are students at the Work Resource Center.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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But it refuses to go away.

Seen Thursday during a tour for Work Resource Center students, the underground station at Race Street and the parkway stands empty but ready.

Concealed by two hinged plates of steel, the station's concrete staircase descends from the parkway's median. Today, that median will be bustling with people attending Taste of Cincinnati. Below ground, all will be still.

The station's steps are damp. Not musty. Or crumbling.

A platform leads to two subway tunnels - one's empty, the other cradles a water main serving Cincinnati's west side. After 82 years, the tubes' tracks remain a work in progress. Thick oak ties are bolted in place, still waiting for their steel rails.

Hard to believe no train ever pulled into this station.

City taxpayers, however, were taken for a ride. After four years of debate, studies and foot-dragging - sound familiar? - voters went to the polls in 1916 and 1917 and overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to build a $6.1 million subway.

Construction started in 1920. Work stopped in 1927. The money had run out.

Ever since work on Cincinnati's subway system stopped in 1927, urban myths have revolved around Cincinnati's white elephant.

Such as, it's:

Haunted - Over the last five years, John Luginbill, city engineering technician, has conducted 100-plus tours. He's never seen a ghost along the two-mile tunnel system under Central Parkway.

Rat-infested - "There's nothing down there for them to eat," Luginbill said.

Inhabited - During subway tours, Luginbill is often asked if homeless people live in the tubes. In a word: No. Entrances to the regularly-inspected tunnels are "either locked, blocked or bricked up."

Too narrow - Myth No. 4 goes like this: The system was never finished because its tunnels were too narrow for the subway cars to make turns on the tracks. Not so. In his book, The Cincinnati Subway, Allen J. Singer notes that the tracks were never laid and the cars were never purchased.

Allen J. Singer's The Cincinnati Subway arrives in stores Wednesday. Published by Arcadia, the 128-page, soft-cover book detailing the history of the Queen City's ill-fated subway system costs $19.99.

To order, call (888) 313-2665 or go online at, or

Crews of men, mules and horses had completed 10 of the 16 miles in the system's loop - including two miles of tunnels - running under downtown and Central Parkway and above ground along what would become the routes of interstates 75 and 71 and the Norwood Lateral.

After work on the rapid-transit rail system ground to a halt, experts at the time estimated the project could be finished for another $6 million to $12 million.

The bonds weren't paid off until 1966. Final tally: $13,019,982.45 in taxpayers' money.

Do the math. The city could have had a subway that worked for $12 million to $18 million. Instead, Cincinnati paid $13 million for a hole in the ground.

But what an influential hole.

This subterranean white elephant sealed the fate of downtown and set the course for development throughout the Tristate. It also started a tradition of city administrations run by nervous Nellies lacking foresight and the courage to build for the future.

The Cincinnati Subway puts life under the city and above ground into context along every step of this uniquely Cincinnati fiasco.

Only Cincinnati would build a subway, but never use it because of political squabbling at City Hall.

Only frugal Cincinnati would play it safe and pay off the bonds for an unused subway instead of finishing the job. And changing the city.

"With the subway, Cincinnati would have been much bigger," Singer said.

"Downtown would have spread out with subway lines going north and south, east and west."

[IMAGE] Work Resource Center students use planks to cross puddles of water in the subway tunnels.
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Trained as a broadcast engineer, the 32-year-old Cincinnati native wrote his book because of a childhood trip downtown.

"My mom was driving on Central Parkway," Singer said. "She told me that the parkway followed the route of an old canal."

Intrigued, he became a student of the canal and its successor.

The Miami-Erie Canal brought goods and greatness to Cincinnati from 1825 to 1856. But by 1877, when it was officially abandoned by the city, it was a little-used cesspool.

In 1884, The Cincinnati Graphic newspaper proposed draining the canal and replacing it with a subway. That idea almost became a reality. But it was short-circuited by petty politics, the Great Depression and two world wars.

Singer takes no sides in his clearly written, extensively illustrated book. But the facts place the blame on:

• George "Boss" Cox, the city's political boss from 1884 until his death in 1916. His corrupt lieutenants ran City Hall when the subway was planned and begun. They spent money without proper authorization and weren't forthcoming about costs. Shades of Paul Brown Stadium?

• Murray Seasongood, Cincinnati's patron saint of good government. The reform-minded mayor dismantled the Cox machine. He pulled the plug on the subway, in part, because its commissioners were associated with Cox and his cronies. But, by killing the subway, Seasongood threw out the baby with the bathwater.

In telling the subway's story, Singer feels he has written "a political comedy. Politics caused the bulk of what went wrong."

Rickey Pryor, a Work Resource Center student on Thursday's tour, wondered "what went wrong, here?" as he pointed his flashlight at the wood ties in the nearly pitch-black underground Race Street station. "This subway would have reduced pollution. Why didn't they finish it?"

Good question.

John Luginbill, city engineering technician, hears that every time he leads a subway tour. And he's led more than 100 in the last five years.

Here's the short answer, via The Cincinnati Subway.

Eleven days after America entered World War I, Cincinnati voters gave their final approval to build a 16-mile, $6.1 million rapid-transit rail system above and below ground. The war put the project on hold. Work finally began with a ground-breaking ceremony on Jan. 28, 1920. By then, however, inflation had doubled prices of goods and materials.

During construction, a battle raged at City Hall: Seasongood's reformers versus the Cox machine. Seasongood won and eventually stopped work on the subway. He cited inflation and the failing fortunes of the interurban railroads that would be linked to the subway.

Seasongood noted that rising auto sales would reduce potential subway ridership. He failed to look further down the road to see a growing population with more cars, leading to traffic congestion and the need for a subway.

The mayor also wanted his supporters - not the tools of the Cox machine - on the subway's board of commissioners. By the time the Cox appointees' terms expired and Seasongood had his men in place, the Great Depression was in progress. And the subway was history.

Singer's book follows that post-1929 history, citing numerous studies calling for the subway's completion and the 2002 defeat of a sales tax to build a light-rail system, using the subway's routes.

"It's so sad how decisions are made in Cincinnati," said Khalid Bekka, vice president of HLB Decision Economics in Silver Springs, Md. He was speaking of the subway's death in 1927 and the defeat of the light-rail tax in 2002.

"Downtown's beautiful," he said. But it "caters to cars" with parking lots and highways.

"They motivate people to live outside the city. They don't create walkable communities."

Bekka's firm recently conducted a study on the benefits of adding a light-rail line to I-75. The line - following the path of the old subway system - would add $911 million in benefits to the area's economy over 30 years. Another lane of highway along the same route would contribute less than $85 million over the same time period.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation," Bekka noted, "if the subway system had been built.

"In the '20s, Cincinnati resembled New York and Chicago. Their growth rate and economic importance were similar.

"Then Cincinnati started to lag behind. And, look at what happened to those other two cities."

They created extensive mass transportation systems on rails above and below ground. Cincinnati built highways and covered up the subway stations, bricked over the tunnels, wrecked the above-ground passenger platforms.

This made the city car-dependent, moved people from downtown into the suburbs and spawned today's traffic jams.

Cincinnati has long tried to distance itself from the subway. It was out of sight. But not out of mind.

"Cincinnati has never ever been able to say 'never' to the subway," Singer said.

"Somebody's always coming up with another plan to revive it, to bring it back to life."

Those planners share the same vision. They want to do more than talk about Cincinnati's subway. They want to take it for a ride.

Cliff Radel, a Cincinnati native, writes about the people, places and traditions defining his hometown. E-mail

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