Why Can’t We Divert Traffic Under the Ohio River?

Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky leaders have shared a “tunnel vision” for almost 200 years.

The local daily newspaper, just 11 years ago, carried a letter proposing that the most appropriate replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge was a tunnel burrowing under the Ohio River to connect Cincinnati and Covington. The correspondent probably believed he was the first to suggest this idea, but that was hardly the case.

It could have been in Cincinnati – an 1870 illustration of workmen constructing a tunnel beneath Manhattan.

Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, digitized by Library of Congress

As early as 1827, The York (Pennsylvania) Gazette claimed that an “enterprising citizen” was drawing up plans for a tunnel to connect Covington and Cincinnati. Just a few years later, in 1834, The Cincinnati Journal proposed a tunnel, more than 30 years before the Roebling Suspension Bridge finally spanned the Ohio River. According to The Journal, the cost of a bridge was prohibitive because of the height of Ohio River floods:

“Thick piers a hundred feet high and a hundred feet apart would be required, the expense of which, with that of the superstructure, would, it is calculated, exceed that of making a tunnel. The opinion of an experienced engineer is said to have been obtained, which is in favor of the tunnel.”

According to an article in The Mechanic’s Magazine [September 27, 1834], this tunnel would be made of stone and was expected to cost less than $200,000.

The idea reemerged in 1846 when The Cincinnati Gazette revived the idea of a tunnel under the Ohio River. Cincinnati City Council listened to a new twist on the tunnel idea in 1854, and the unnamed inventor behind this scheme created a stir as far as London, England. The Athenaeum [April 29, 1854] described the concept for its British readers:

“I propose to build a tube of iron of any desired dimensions, and sink it in the bed of the river, in sections, as low as may be found practicable, by first dredging a channel deep enough to admit of the top being sunk below or even with the bed of the river, entirely avoiding the use of coffer dams.”

The 1854 iron tube proposal was reported in a dozen or more U.S. newspapers as well as the London journal, but was overshadowed that year by reports of a sub-riparian tunnel between Indiana and Louisville. It is unknown whether the same inventor was involved, but nothing came of that proposal either.

Once the Roebling Bridge proved that Ohio River bridges were both feasible and economical, the tunnel idea went somnolent for a while, but bounced back in 1933 when the Kentucky Division of the Cincinnati Automobile Club entertained that possibility while discussing transpontane congestion.

In 1935, as Newport lobbied for better connections to Cincinnati, Campbell County voters defeated a referendum to build “a bridge or bridges over, or a tunnel or tunnels under, the Ohio River.” According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [June 19, 1935]:

“Engineers declare that the proposal to build a tunnel is out of the question because such a tunnel could not be built for $1,500,000.”

When planning got underway for what became the Brent Spence Bridge, Kentucky State Rep. Thomas P. Fitzpatrick argued that bridges lacked imagination. He told The Kentucky Post [July 4, 1955]:

“Every engineer I have talked to has said that a traffic tunnel under the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington is not only feasible but the most practical thing that could happen.”

Few agreed. Among the dissenters was Fred Barnett, Fitzpatrick’s opponent in that year’s election. Barnett, according to The Kentucky Post [July 13, 1955], thought the tunnel idea was just a campaign gimmick:

“I regret that Mr. Fitzpatrick advocated a tunnel under the Ohio River because 20 years ago my friend, the late John Thobe, advocated the same proposal which is good campaign material but not workable since it has twice been shown by records that it is only a wild fantastic dream of those who seek to delude the public to gain a minor office.”

Thobe, a perennial Covington candidate, did in fact propose an Ohio River tunnel in his unsuccessful run for Covington mayor in 1939.

Despite the poo-pooing of Barnett and his ilk, The Cincinnati Enquirer announced [June 7, 1957] that the newly completed Baltimore Harbor Tunnel demonstrated the feasibility of underwater tunnels. Suggesting that this system could be adopted for the Ohio River, The Enquirer described the Baltimore project in exactly the same terms as that unnamed inventor from 1854: metal tubes laid in a ditch carved into the riverbed.

Yet again, the tunnel idea slumbered until the Brent Spence Bridge reached, and then exceeded, its capacity and talk of a new connection between Ohio and Kentucky gained momentum.

With all the talk about vehicular tunnels, it is often forgotten that there really is a tunnel under the Ohio River. Several actually. In 1907, a half-mile long, 7-foot wide tunnel from the Waterworks in California, Ohio to just shy of Fort Thomas, Kentucky went into operation. This tunnel carries water from the intake station near the Kentucky shore to Cincinnati’s purification plant. The tunnel, bored through bedrock 100 feet below the riverbed, was drained and inspected in 1977 after 70 years of flawless function and found to be in good working order. A second tunnel, 10 feet in diameter, was excavated in 1959 and connects to a new intake pier located about 500 feet upstream of the 1907 intake.

In addition, although more like pipes than tunnels, Duke Energy has also dug out passageways between Ohio and Kentucky to deliver natural gas to its customers.

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