Thursday, July 13, 2017

What Could've Been: The Cincinnati Subway and its Boston Inspiration

At the station known as Central on Boston's MBTA Red Line, you can get a good glimpse of what Cincinnati almost had, if only we had finished our subway...

- Passengers hurry to and from a Red Line train at Central station.

If you could study “knowledge of bold things proposed for Cincinnati that never came to be,” I'd have pursued a PHD. Many times these stories have come to somewhat define my home. You may be familiar with that often touted, but questionable Mark Twain quote, the one about how we’re ten years behind the times, so be sure to get here when the world ends! While the quote’s authenticity may be doubtful, the sentiment can definitely feel real. I love this place deeply, but we've certainly had some historical missteps (still do) and I'm fascinated by those stories. From our departing NBA team, our missed chance at the NHL, to the decline of our once booming airport, and everything in between: I love to ponder “what could’ve been.” Undoubtedly, my favorite of these stories is that of the never completed Cincinnati Subway.

If you've followed QC/D for awhile, you've probably seen me cover that story before. The photographs don't do the story proper justice. It's amazing just how big the tunnels are and how close we came to having a full scale, heavy rail rapid transit system. You're not likely to get to see the abandoned tunnels these days, but there's a way for you to experience what we missed out on. That's in Boston, nearby in Cambridge specifically. The Central station of the MBTA’s Red Line Subway is the closest you'll get to ever realizing what Cincinnati could've had. That's because our never completed system’s stations were modeled after it (with some variations).

- The Brighton Corner station of Cincinnati's abandoned subway system.

There’s two great books out there about the Cincinnati Subway. The first was by Allen J. Singer and started me down a long road of studying the city’s history. The second is by my talented friend Jake Mecklenborg. He’s the one who actually recommended I go see Boston’s Central station for myself while on a recent trip.

Here’s how the story goes:

At the onset of designing the never realized subway, Cincinnati borrowed inspiration from Boston’s Baldwin Report. The document had been prepared by a gentleman named Ward Baldwin who had been involved with the construction of an extension to Boston’s Red Line, then known as the Cambridge-Dorchester Subway. The extension included Central station and opened in 1912. Cincinnati had used the report as somewhat of a guide, specifically in regards to its preliminary cost estimate and presumably the specifications of construction. At the time, Boston’s Subway ran 4-car trains and Cincinnati’s was also designed with 4-car operation in mind, featuring similar platform widths, heights, and central column designs. Cincinnati’s Brighton Corner station features the most similarity, although it’s absent of the tile, mosaics, benches, and other common station features that never found their way underground before construction was abandoned.

- Cincinnati's Brighton Corner station now features a redundancy water main running through it rather than trains.

- In Boston's Central station you can see similar construction features that inspired Cincinnati's never completed subway.

Even midday on a Saturday afternoon in July when nearby Harvard University has most of its student body gone for the summer, the Central station is still packed with riders departing and arriving. I explored the area above, but stayed underground for quite awhile. After photographing the station and its frequent trains, I sat on a bench and just closed my eyes for a minute. I tried to picture what it would be like to hear the sounds of rumbling subway cars, automated announcements and passengers hurrying by while waiting for a train at Brighton’s Corner. One that would be heading into Downtown Cincinnati or taking me out further out into the region. Honestly, it felt somewhat depressing. The failure to never complete Cincinnati’s Subway time and time again has repeatedly set the greater metro area back and given rise to an incredibly negative attitude and perception. While the opening of the Cincinnati Streetcar’s first phase and hope for a Metro levy in 2018 give promise to the local transit future, we’re still a far cry from the idea proposed at a time when Cincinnati truly dared to be bold and innovative while looking to the future.

Hopefully, we learn from the past.

- The empty tunnels of Cincinnati's abandoned subway system, ghosts of our past.

A photographic look at Boston's Red Line and Central station. What could have been:

In the two above photos, you can see what the above-ground station entrances look like in Cambridge. Note the bus in the background, Central connects with several major MBTA bus routes. Nearby, about a block away, you'll find a parking lot behind a grocery store featuring development similar to modern day Over-The-Rhine. Several of the Cincinnati Subway's stations would have served OTR and The West End:

The following graphic shows where the Brighton Corner station sits, what it was designed to look like above and below ground, and renderings from a study that show a potentially renovated and realized station:

- A column in Central.
- At some point, Boston's Red Line stations were extended from 4-car operation to 6-car. This is evident in the changing of the floor tile as well as where the central columns were not extended further.

- Passengers on the platforms of Boston's Red Line.

- Escalators were eventually added to some of Boston's Red Line stations, while elevators can be found at others. All of Cincinnati's stations feature stairs and would have to be made ADA compliant if they were ever used.

- A bike sharing service station located just outside a Boston Red Line entrance at Central.

- Stairs to the inbound platform.

When I departed Cambridge, I caught an inbound train headed towards Boston. All I could think was: "we were so close."

- Red Line train departing Central.

For QC/D's previous stories about the Cincinnati Subway, click here.

For Jake's excellent book about the subway and its history, go here


  1. I grew up in Fort Thomas, lived there for most of my life, raised my family in Florence, then moved to the DMV area in 2005. For all of its own troubles, DC's Metro is a nice system. After seeing Boston's and then imagining Cincinnati having one, I just can't imagine it. For some reason, Cincinnati does not strike me as a public transportation city. When I returned there in 2015 after being gone for 12 years, we went downtown and was amazed at how small it felt. Fountain Square was amazingly tiny and I got that feeling of how large things felt when you're a kid and then everything feels small when you return as an adult.

    If the Cincinnati subway had been built, who knows, maybe it would have changed the culture there. I've ridden NYC's subway, BART in San Francisco, DC's and Chicago's, but can't imagine something like that there. I remember, too, driving from Cincinnati to Chicago and going through Toledo. That city reminds me a lot of Cincinnati if the Reds and Bengals weren't there.

    1. Anon,

      It's interesting you mention Cincinnati feeling "small." Having recently been in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit - I've been having similar feelings. Also doesn't help that I work downtown and have seen what feels like almost every nook and cranny. However, I think one of the things that makes Cincinnati "feel" smaller is the way in which its areas are broken up. Our civic borders were never really expanded so a city of 300,000 sits at the center of a metro area featuring nearly 2.1 Million. Northern Kentucky is its own distinct place with its own distinct cities which each have their own distinct neighborhoods, but at the same time are part of the larger area. Even Cincy's neighborhoods can feel somewhat isolated or apart from the greater whole. Northside and Oakley are great, but separated from the main urban core by highways and hills.

      Ultimately, looking at things from above, it's a pretty big city and region. Having spent some time in Toledo, I don't think that's quite accurate. Even without pro sports teams, Cincinnati still has much larger businesses', corporate headquarters, and other attractions/activities that a much smaller city like Toledo doesn't have.

      That all being said, I think true mass transit as was planned in 1914, throughout the 70s, 80s, and MetroMoves in 2002 (all none of which came to be), would greatly change that perception and how we move around/interact with the city.

      I think it can still happen, the streetcar is a small step originally envisioned as the start to MetroMoves, but as of right now the region has all these distinct little areas and districts. Still not as Big as Boston, Atlanta, or NYC, but definitely a major city.