What’s Under Over-the-Rhine

Demand rises for access to Cincinnati’s subway and beer cellars.

Although not as highly touted as Over-the-Rhine, increased attention and tourism is shining more light these days on Under-the-Rhine, the mysterious places under Cincinnati’s original neighborhood. The centerpieces are rediscovered subterranean cellars and tunnels that pre-Prohibition breweries used to cool their lager beer and the almost mythical abandoned Cincinnati subway.

Photograph by Ronny Salerno

The demand to see these long-dormant underground attractions—urban caves—has created a booming business for those who sponsor tours. And some are now hoping to regain access to the subway tunnel, where Cincinnati Museum Center sponsored sold-out tours until 2015. The city owns roughly two miles of tunnels underneath Central Parkway that constitute the length of the never-used 1920s-era subway, but officials say they’re worried about its lack of utilities and the limited number of entrances and exits. (Stations exist at Race and Liberty streets and at Brighton Place; a planned fourth at Linn Street wasn’t built.) Those shortcomings haven’t quenched the desire to tour the subway.

“We’d love to do a double tour of lager cellars and subway tunnels,” says Steven Hampton, executive director of the nonprofit Over-the-Rhine Brewery District. “It would be really cool.” And Craig Maness, business relations director of for-profit American Legacy Tours, has also asked the city for access. “They have no interest in it,” he says. “But my fingers are crossed. Maybe one day.”

According to the city’s Transportation & Engineering Department website, voters in 1916 approved issuance of $6 million in bonds to build a 16-mile rapid-transit loop around the city consisting of underground, grade-level, and elevated tracks. The subway portion was built in the drained bed of the Miami & Erie Canal starting in 1920, with principal work finished by 1923. But as prices for remaining construction rose, Mayor Murray Seasongood of the reformist Charter Committee eliminated the Rapid Transit Board in 1928. That was more or less the end of the dream for the loop. The subway portion was left without tracks, train cars, or connected utilities.

There are at least two projects in American cities right now that seek to reuse similarly abandoned underground transportation infrastructure. New York City’s Lowline has been proposed for a former trolley terminal inside an existing subway station on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The plan is to convert it the space into a one-acre underground park and use solar technology to bring in sunshine and allow plants to grow. It’s on hold after an effort to raise $10 million stalled, says Lowline co-founder James Ramsey.

In Philadelphia, the first piece of the three-mile Rail Park opened in 2018. It’s a $10 million elevated public space—like New York’s High Line—along a former Reading Railroad viaduct. Of two remaining phases, one will take the park through a 3,000-foot underground train tunnel. The entire Rail Park project could cost $200 million and the remaining sections could take up to 10 years to complete, says Rebecca Cordes Chan, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Rail Park.

An idea for similar revitalization here was expressed by Christian Huelsman, whose nonprofit Spring in Our Steps urges preservation and public use of Cincinnati’s historic urban steps and alleys. “The subway could serve as a bike tunnel and connected trail system along I-75, especially where right-of-way access is restricted by state-owned land adjacent to the freeway,” he says. “Another opportunity is a transit museum, which could reflect some aspects of the New York Transit Museum.”

City officials say another reason access to the subway is limited is because Cincinnati Water Works laid a water transmission main through the tunnel in 1957. As Water Works prepares for its next master plan, however, it may assess relocation. If it should decide to remove that water line, the overall process could take another 10 years.

Nevertheless, removal might open up new prospects for reuse that could find support in Hamilton County, where voters last year passed a transit sales tax levy for the first time and earlier provided tax support for renovating the 1930s-era Cincinnati Museum Center, a repurposed train station. The idea of preserving historic structures below street level as well as above is no longer just an underground concept.

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