Monday, June 15, 2009

The Catacombs of Cleveland

In Cleveland, beneath the Veterans' Memorial Bridge, crossing over the Cuyahoga River, is an abandoned deck which once provided an exclusive right-of-way to Cleveland's streetcars, while motor vehicles whizzed by overhead.

Making great time from Cincinnati I stopped only a few times to use the restroom and once to purchase a scrumptious lunch from a speedway gas station after constantly hearing their advertisements on 700 WLW. Following approximately 4.5 hours of driving, I pulled off of I-71 and onto W. 25th St. Cruising by dilapidated buildings advertising "peep shows, "W. 25th St. eventually turns from "blight" to "bustling" as I pulled by the West Side Market. I hadn't been in Cleveland since 2005 and never really had the chance to look around the city, much less photograph anything. Aside from the SUV driving morons who don't know how to parallel park, this was a nice area of the city. An accidental right hand turn forced me to drive over the bridge into downtown above the abandoned subway line and stations, turning around I pulled into the County Engineers Office at the southwest end of the bridge.

- The Subway entrance.

Every Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend the Cuyahoga County Engineers Office puts on free, self-guided tours of the subway. Immediately I was greeted by a friendly volunteer staff who guided me towards the subway entrance. As passengers would have entered back in the 1950's, I strolled down the steps past the tiled walls, descending into the "Catacombs of Cleveland."

I have to admit, I was wondering if this was going to be worth the drive, but as soon as I stepped onto the bottom deck of the bridge I knew it was. The first sight of the mammoth structure was pretty cool. The bridge really is a fine example of the kind of architecture you don't see today and it's underside is something most people don't get to see or even know exists.

The lower deck of the bridge was once used to carry the Red Line of the Cleveland Transit System's network of streetcars. And according to the free historical booklet given out at the tour: "...The Subway served as a major hub for commuter transportation until the discontinuation of streetcar service on January 24, 1954."

From the historical guide: "The "Subway" contained six station areas, four restrooms, an electrical control center and pedestrian tunnels that provided access from one side of the Subway to the other beneath the tracks."

- Descending to darkness, this end of the bridge is closed off to tours but would have eventually lead to the other set of stations beneath downtown Cleveland.

- View of grating beneath the bridge.

The lower deck of the bridge provides for some nice views of downtown Cleveland:

- Downtown Cleveland as viewed from the beneath the bridge.

- An RTA train on the active rail line in Cleveland as viewed from the bridge. RTA trains cruise right beneath the bridge and abandoned subway line regularly.

The most interesting part of the tour though is the station beneath Detroit Ave. and W. 25th St. In contrast to Cincinnati's Abandoned Subway, Cleveland's actually served passengers up until 1954. As you walk down the bridge into the station, big band music from that time era was playing over loud speakers the tour guides had set up. If you've ever played the game "Fallout 3," the music really gave you the feel of being in the game listening to "Galaxy Radio." If you're not sure what I'm talking about, Fallout 3 is a game that takes place in 1950's esque destroyed America following a nuclear war. For an example of the music I'm talking about check this out, let it play in the background if you want (launches in a new window). LINK.

- Decaying tile and stone work in the abandoned station.

Here in the station, remains of the tracks can been seen as paint peels off the wall and floodlights light up what once used to be a bustling public center, now abandoned.

- Remains of tracks can be seen here.
- Abandoned station area.

- These stairs would have once lead to a pedestrian path connecting the stations beneath the streetcar tracks. The tunnel is now flooded.

The "Cleveland Subway" is a testament to a time when public transportation in America was thought of differently. These days, many cities around the USA including Cincinnati, are seeing the benefits of and working to develop modern streetcar systems, just half a century after most of them abandoned streetcar service. The Cuyahoga County Engineers Office did a great job setting up the tour and I am glad I made the 4.5 hour drive both ways for it. Following the tour I decided to walk down to the West Side Market and catch a ride on the Cleveland RTA's heavy rail line, walking from the abandoned subway station... an active one:

Due to Cincinnati's lack of rail transit, the only time I had ever ridden any type of subway/heavy rail system was during my 8th grade trip to Washington D.C. in 2001. I hardly remember the experience, so attempting to ride Cleveland's RTA was a bit challenging for an out of town pseudo-tourist with no rail riding experience. The desk at the station wasn't staffed, there were no instructional signs and the automated ticket kiosks were turned off with paper signs on them which read "coming soon." I had no idea how to navigate my way around or how to even pay for the subway ride once I got on the train. I watched a train come by in each direction as I tried to figure out how it worked. After about 20 minutes of confusion, a street flower salesman calling himself "T" sat down next to me and introduced himself. T instructed me on how to pay for a ticket and how to navigate, so I boarded the train from Ohio City with him and headed into downtown Cleveland.

- The man on the left is "T," who helped me navigate my way around Cleveland on the RTA train.

We talked as the train pulled into downtown and beneath the main rail hub at Tower City Center. T recommended that I not get off here since I would probably get confused with all the tracks and such, so I stayed on board and rode to the next stop: Campus St.

The train rolled into the Campus St. station, I shook T's hand and said goodbye, thanking him for his help. The Campus St. station was far less ornate than the stations at Tower City and Ohio City, to be honest I was a bit nervous. As the train pulled away I realized I was the only person at the station and unlike where I started my adventure, there was no clock to tell me when the next train was coming.

- The Red Line RTA station at Campus St.

I could barely see the Cleveland skyline above the highway overpass behind me, realizing I was now pretty far north of where I had parked my car. After a good 15 minutes of waiting, two smaller trains came by and didn't even stop. I began to wonder if my next adventure would be my first ride in a cab. As I was about to walk up to street level and attempt to figure out where I was, up rolled another Red Line train. I hoped on, paid the fare and rode the train back under the city center and to the Ohio City station where I reunited myself with my Toyota Corolla. The experience of my ride on the RTA was great and it made me even more so bitter that Cincinnati never completed a rail transit network. Even though the Browns are worse than the Bengals, Cincinnati can learn something from Cleveland when it comes to Rail Transit. Cleveland gets it right and the RTA line is a safe, quick way to get around town. A similar system connecting

- Exiting the Ohio City station.

The hour was getting late. I had spent nearly two hours taking in the subway tour and photographing it then another hour and half goofing around on the RTA rail line. I was due for a double shift at work the next day and had another 4.5 hour ride home. I drove around the city a bit looking for some good views of the skyline till I happened upon one I liked:

- Cleveland, Ohio.

After taking the photograph of the skyline I noticed that the parking lot I pulled into was surrounding a very large abandoned building. It got me thinking...maybe one day I'll have to make a return again to Cleveland for some "Great Lakes Discovery."

I then spent the next 4.5 hours driving home listening to the Reds beat up on the Indians in a final game of interleague play rivalry.

For all of the stories on Cincinnati's Subway over the years, go here.

Updates | Oct. 7, 2017:
  • Went back to Cleveland in 2016 and spend some time exploring that city via its transit system. I loved it
  • As of August 2017, the free tour seen here was still being held annually. Presumably, it'll be back in 2018 and you can find info here.


  1. I like the old station designs much better than the new ones. It's too bad those aren't used anymore.

  2. Very nice update, keep it up!

  3. Back in 1987 or 88, some friends and I explored the tunnels, well before they were opened by the engineer. There were entrances to the basement of some of the buildings nearby, including the building at the corner of W 25th and Detroit, which now houses a high-end Italians restaurant. The building had burned in 1986 and sat empty, but there were several apartments that still had stuff in them. By far the greatest UE I had ever done, even before it was called UE! I asked my grandmother about the trolley lines, and she said she used to ride that one all the time to go to work downtown. It went underground somewhere around Franklin Ave., IIRC. Next time you're in Cleveland, look me up!

  4. Your photos are great. I would have liked to hear that the city tried to update this antiquated station as opposed to letting it become dilapidated.

  5. Excellent post! Informative, with a great narrative. I still prefer Cincinnati's ruins to Clevelands, but thanks for sharing. It's really depressing seeing this abandoned infrastructure all over the country, but hopefully that will all change.

  6. @Randy :: Yeah, I agree the old stations were much more unique and ornate.

    @Paul :: Thanks!

    @Scott :: That's pretty cool man, have any pictures from that exploration?

    @Michelle :: Thanks for reading!

    @Matt :: I agree, I prefer Cincinnati's abandonments to Clevelands, but every now and then other cities have some cool stuff to offer. Look for a huge article on Detroit later this year...

  7. Nice shots! Those are some very interesting old stations.

  8. Great photos! Living here all my life, I've never been to see these, but now I really want to. Thanks for portraying Cleveland in a good light, even if you did take your little shots here and there on the Indians and what-not. haha

  9. I'm a Cincinnati (well, Northern Kentucky, but close!) native who goes to school in Cleveland, and I recently found this blog when I became interested in the Cincinnati Subways. I never knew about the Cleveland equivalent, even though I've probably seen the old cars from the red line station in Tower City. I'll definitely have to check out this tour this year!

  10. Liz, definitely check out the tour. It's a really cool time and there's plenty to see. Thanks for checking out Queen City Discovery!

  11. I love your pictures and the subway. I really want to know what's out there in the cark parts though...

  12. Nancy, I wonder whats left down there too. Apparently, from what I gathered at the tour, that end was just like the other end, streetcars eventually entered tunnels and would come out at street level.

  13. Also, thanks for checking out the site!

  14. Next time you visit Cleveland,take a trip on the Shaker Rapid.With much actual street running,it's the closest thing to an actual streetcar ride to be had in Ohio.

  15. Save that photo you have above of the Cleveland skyline. That shot is looking directly into the path of where the new Innerbelt bridge is being built right now That abandon building by the lot you turned into are both long gone for several years now. The existing Innerbelt bridge (blue bridge on the right side of your photo) will be demolished and rebuilt with a 2nd new span once the new one currently under construction is complete.

  16. Anyone know if there is still a way in to photograph them? Curious how to access them...

    1. im curious about this as well^