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.
Almost exactly 100 years ago the automobile was still in its infancy and cities were looking for ways to shuttle their burgeoning populations from downtown workplaces to the nascent suburbs. Several midwestern cities, including Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Detroit, passed bond issues so that construction could begin on subway systems that emulated the successful New York City one, which began running trains underground in 1904.
“Cincinnati was unique in that they were the only [Midwestern] city to actually begin working on the subway,” says Jake Mecklenborg, who authored a book about Cincinnati’s doomed experiment. His book, Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway, details much of the underground drama. But the problems the project faced were more political than logistical.