Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Forgotten Rail Station at Torrence Rd. Emerges


An abandoned railroad station, first featured here nearly ten years ago, now emerging from vegetation and obscurity.



- The Torrence Rd. station and its bas relief mural now visible from the road.


Jeffey and I had photographed the old train station at Torrence Rd. in the summer of 2009, then Gozer and I stopped by again in 2011. While recently driving out of the city, I opted to take Riverside back to my neighborhood instead of the normal route. QC/D contributor Andrea was along for the ride when the long abandoned depot once again caught my eye—simply because I could clearly see it from the road. The brush that had enveloped the structure over the decades was now nearly gone, revealing the building and exposing its distinct artwork to the street below. We pulled over and started making our way there when one of Cincy’s finest pulled up. He too had been surprised when passing by. We spoke with the officer about the work going on, all of us shocked that something was finally happening, even if none of us knew what the workers with chainsaws and small earth movers were up to.

- A bricked over window falling apart at the station's base.

- Old construction marker still emblazoned on the building. The Ferro Concrete Construction Company built some of the city's most iconic buildings.

- What's left of Torrence Rd. and its old sidewalk railings.

- The remains of Torrence Rd. and its concrete embankment.


Andrea and I strolled up what used to be—and I guess still technically is—Torrence Rd. The asphalt has deteriorated almost completely and revealed much of the original cobblestones, now caked in mud from the recent debris clearing.


- Guardrail that once kept the road closed after its abandonment. 

- Torrence Rd., or another connecting street, as it heads up towards Columbia Parkway.

- Stone marker at the top of a vastly overgrown set of hillside steps

- Rails of the "Oasis" line.


“We work for the man who owns this property, he’s planning to build condos,” one of the workers told me while taking a break.

"Is the building going to be saved?" I asked.

She just shrugged and smiled.

- Clearing the brush and debris at the site of the station's former loading platforms.

- Historical photograph of the Torrence Rd. station.


The work crew didn't have any uniforms or signage. Busy on a Saturday morning, I'm not sure if they were operating in any "official" capacity. That is to say: I wondered how far along this development project really was and if it was moving ahead with the proper permits and permissions. Much of their debris and equipment was blocking an active railway. What they were able to tell me was that the bas relief sculpture adorning the former station wall (at least what's left of it) would be saved.


There's some debate over the sculpture's origins, but the main story from local historians seems to be that the design hailed from sculptor Karl Bitter. A lauded artisan, Bitter had been commissioned to create ten works for the Pennsylvania Railroad's (PRR) Broad Street Station in Philadelphia. These works were to represent ten key American cities along the PRR's routes. After a fire wreaked havoc on Philadelphia's main train terminal in 1923, the sculptures were salvaged and placed in the cities that bore their name.


The Torrence Rd. station had been built to primarily serve the PRR along the Little Miami Railroad in 1907. Torrence Rd. itself winded eastward from Riverside Dr, across the train tracks, and then westward to continue up the hillside. Passengers could enter the station/waiting room from Riverside and then ascend stairs to the loading platforms above. Or they could enter from atop the hill, across a bridge above the tracks, and down to the platforms. Several railroad enthusiasts I've spoken to (and who have left comments on the original article over the years) have been quick to point out that this was one of the first (if not the first) railroad stations in the United States to feature an elevator.

I've also heard this theory from multiple people: that the elevator came at the insistence of President and Cincinnati native William Howard Taft. Supposedly, it existed to provide access to his wheelchair-bound wife from their residence in the hills above the station (the PRR would've been the most direct link to Washington D.C. at the time).

However, there are a few issues with that story: Helen "Nellie" Taft wasn't confined to a wheelchair and the Taft estate (now a historical site) exists further west, closer to Downtown, where another PRR station would've been more convenient than the one at Torrence Rd. President Taft's eldest son, Robert, did serve as an influential conservative Senator. His wife, Martha, was aided by a wheelchair in the wake of a stroke. The story fits more in line with this Taft couple, but Martha's stroke didn't come until 1950, well after the station was constructed. I'm not sure where Martha and Sen. Taft resided, but the Torrence Rd. station fell out of use in 1968, apparently slowly losing passengers to the larger Union Terminal which had opened in 1933 and consolidated most of the city's railroad traffic.

So is there any truth to the Taft story? If so, I'd love to know. The history of the nation's railroad systems can often get confusing and complicated, even at the local level.

Another rumor: the former station building was filled with locomotive ash, not dirt, when it was abandoned.



I'm not entirely sure when Torrence Rd. (different than Torrence Parkway) fell into disuse, but I assume it was when nearby US 50/Columbia Parkway was upgraded into a four lane divided highway served by exit ramps rather than local roads. According to the police officer we ran into earlier: the old street is occasionally a dumping ground for stolen vehicles. The hillside steps serving the street presumably died off around the same time as the road. According to a commenter on the original, 2009 article—the abandoned street, steps, station, and statue were once a place to explore and have some illicit fun:

"...as a child we played on the railroad tracks and used to call this location headless as the statue on the wall was missing its head lol!! later as teenagers we used to drink on this hill we'd drive our cars up there and hide from the cops untill they put the gaurd rail up there. further down the tracks are some other old stuctures that i found interesting when i was little and still don't know what they are."

The only thing not abandoned on the hillside are the railroad tracks themselves, at least not all of them. The tracks still see occasional use from freight trains making deliveries to riverfront industries. The Cincinnati Dinner Train also makes regular runs on the line and before its demise, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus train used to navigate down this stretch of track to visit the Downtown arena (the tracks terminate near the Montgomery Inn Boathouse). Of the two parallel tracks, only one is active and relegated to low speed use. The other is mostly overgrown. Nevertheless, the occasional passing train, historic bridges/tunnels, and route through Eastern neighborhoods give this line the appearance of being a local passenger route. If one didn't know better (and didn't look too closely), they might assume these tracks are Cincinnati's version of Chicago's "El train."

Further down the rail line, there's another section of abandoned infrastructure that adds to this mystique. I'm not sure if it was another station, or simply pedestrian access around the rail line, but the tunnel and steps interact directly with the tracks just as a subway platform would, as seen by Gozer and I in 2011:

- Lancaster St. Steps (and station?) in 2011.


Known today primarily as the "Oasis Line," these tracks have often been suggested as being key to a modern light rail network (Cincinnati currently only has a small, downtown circulator line). The right-of-way is owned by the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority and was purchased along with several other historic freight/passenger lines in the event that regional rail transportation ever become a reality. Certain local politicians often like to talk about how "The Oasis" could easily be converted for regular commuter use, particularly for the fledgling Eastern Corridor project. I'll spare you a lengthy lesson (and some ranting) on local transportation politics, though, and just leave it at this: every few years, one person in particular talks about how easily commuter trains could start running along this line, but I've heard that story since I was 13. I'm now almost 30. The truth is that the rails would need upgrading, infrastructure would have to be significantly improved, studies would need to be conducted, adjoining neighbors certainly wouldn't be happy, and both the City and State would finally have to buy into rail transportation. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune has often touted bold plans for the Oasis Line, most recently claiming in 2013 that trains could be running in time for the 2015 MLB All-Star Game. Baseball's best have come and gone, though, and as these photographs show: no commuter trains.

Had the State of Ohio not pulled the plug on the "Three C" project to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland via Amtrak (a political stunt that saw no money returned to the State and instead funded rail projects in other states), these tracks could've been used.

It's also debatable whether or not this line would be the best candidate for establishing local rail transportation. The best connectivity and development opportunities are along the Wasson Way, but that line's conversion into a bike trail puts the future of trains connecting the East Side neighborhoods in doubt. Much like the Wasson Way, some have suggested converting The Oasis into a bike path, a choice that would no doubt hamper (probably intentionally so) future attempts at improved public transportation. If ever used, even as a "bus-way," the right-of-way would be a windy, yet effective path, to connect Downtown Cincinnati with several neighborhoods and ultimately the suburb of Blue Ash.

I shot these photographs about two weeks ago and then stumbled upon more railroad remnants about a week later. Ironically, just now getting around to posting these, it's nine years to the day that I first wrote about the Torrence Rd. Station. I'll keep an eye out to see if these supposed condos ever come into existence and if so, what will happen to the historic structure.

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If you want some further reading about Cincinnati's old railroads and the remnants they left behind, I highly recommend Jeffrey Jakucyk's website. Queen City Survey also has an interesting writeup




2 comments:

  1. I passed there just the other day and wondered what was up. Good job on research. I found story of the "Cincinnati" bas relief revealing and interesting. Great pics. Nick

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Nick! Hoping the sculpture is truly saved.

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