Nearly 100 years ago, the residents of Cincinnati, Ohio had a dream: to ease downtown congestion by traveling on underground rail. Fortunately, the city already owned a major form of right-of-way in the area: The Erie Canal. In the early 1900s, the canal had fallen into disuse and became an open sewer. To alleviate health concerns and the traffic problems, the city of Cleveland planned to drain the waterway and build a subway system using the bed of the canal. The project was conceived in 1916 and would ultimately be stopped short after completing a total of 6 miles of infrastructure and 2.2 miles of underground tunnels.
Interstate 75 slices the city of Cincinnati in half like an orange. On one side is the city’s Catholic working class west, while the east side is favored by the wealthier academics and industrials holed up in enclaves with names like Indian Hill. On all sides are cars. Simple commutes from Cincinnati’s suburbs to downtown can take an hour or more. One hundred thousand cars and trucks a day clog both directions on I-75, many of them headed to towns elsewhere in Ohio.
But it was almost a different story. If just a few things had gone differently Cincinnati would today be a city of straphangers and bustling underground stations. The Cincinnati subway stations are still there. But if you’re still waiting for a train to come, you’ve been waiting for almost a century. To this day Cincinnati remains home to the largest unused subway system in the world, with over two miles of empty tunnels. Engineers who inspected the tunnels recently deemed them in “very good condition.” Today, the warren of underground tunnels appears flash-frozen in time, an underground Vesuvius where the clock stopped. Stations and platforms sit pristinely as if still waiting for passengers that’ll never come. Tracks disappear into the dark.