100 years ago, the city of Cincinnati decided it was time for an upgrade that would lead them into the 20th century. They would join large metropolitan cities like Paris and New York in connecting their sprawling towns with an underground metro.
The plan was to drain the still water in the disused Erie Canal and utilize that as the basis of the primary tunnel. The original plan included 16 miles of underground tracks that would connect several different areas of the city. Construction began in earnest in 1920, but by 1927, only 7 miles of tunneling was complete and the project ran out of money. No tracks were ever laid and the subway was never used.
The project funding was planned in 1917, being approved just 11 days before the US entered WWI. Because no capital bonds could be issued during the war and it was difficult to procure building materials, construction was delayed. Once the war was over, post-war inflation caused construction costs to skyrocket. The city moved forward anyways, leading to the diminishing of the funds before the project was completed.
Once it was realized that the money would not be raised to complete the project, various options were explored to utilize the existing tunnels. Over the years, it has been proposed for automobile traffic, air raid shelters, wine storage, and underground mall and night club, and a movie set. None of the ideas ever came to fruition for various reasons, including political squabbling, the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise in popularity of the automobile.
In 2002, a proposal called “Metro Moves” would have funded a rail transit network that planned to use the tunnel. It involved a half of a cent sales tax and was defeated by a 2-1 public vote.
Because of the quality of the original tunnel construction and the fact that taxes are used to maintain them as a road runs over top, they are strikingly well-preserved.
The tunnels are currently recognized as the largest abandoned subway tunnel in the United States.
Once a year, the Cincinnati Museum Center offers a tour. For the rest of the year, the site is a haven for urban explorers that can find a way in.
Based on the history of the tunnels, it isn’t likely that they are going to be used in an active project anytime soon, but they have mostly faded from public knowledge. Today, even many Cincinnatians don’t know about the abandoned tunnels beneath their city streets. It’s likely that will be the case even more so 100 years from now.