When our Cincinnati forbearers needed something done, they dug.
If they needed to move materials and foment trade, they dug a canal. When they needed to chill their beer, they dug lagering cellars and tunnels to connect them. When they needed to pump the Ohio River for drinking water, they dug down 125 feet into the floodplain and sunk massive steam engines there to do the work. And when the canal became a cesspool, they dug a subway – or, ya know, started to...
And why not dig? Labor in the late-1800s and early-1900s was cheap and plentiful. As a result, industrialists and town officials had local workers dig, and dig, and dig – often for 12 hours per day, six days per week.
All these underground laborers left behind an eclectic patchwork of eerie and exciting attractions, often literally right under our feet. Queen City residents and visitors alike should take the time to explore these underground marvels.
BEER BELOW IN OVER-THE-RHINE
Beer cellars and tunnels abound beneath Over the Rhine. For one, the Christian Moerlein Malthouse Tap Room sits atop cellars and sub-cellars, all dug by German brewers to chill their lager beer through the hot summers. Both the Brewing Heritage Trail and American Legacy Tours offer public tours of several other cellars and tunnels, including the defunct Jackson and Crown breweries.
Two local artists even used a cellar under Union Hall for an immersive comic book experience. The MeSseD Tunnel Tour brings visitors into the cellar to read the eight-foot high comic book panels. Appropriately, the comic follows the exploits of a sewer worker who runs into some unexpected (and unwelcome) company within a city’s underground tunnels.
CINCINNATI TRIPLE STEAM
In the late 1800s, Cincinnati was beset by challenges getting water to its burgeoning population. Attempts at building a variety of pumping systems at the Front Street Station failed — as did a floating pumping station — until the city finally addressed the issue in 1898 by beginning construction of what’s now known as Cincinnati Triple Steam. Deep into the Cincinnati Water Works campus on Kellogg Avenue, the underground facility includes four 1,400-ton, 104-foot triple expansion crank and flywheel steam engines. The facility's steam engines pumped the city’s water from 1906 to 1963 when they were replaced with electric pumps.
Tours run the first Saturday of each month and will take you down to five feet below the bottom of the Ohio River.
THE ILL-FATED SUBWAY
Every resident knows of Cincinnati's eerie subway. Nearly 100 years ago, the city built two miles of tunnel and six stations before initial funding ran out. Due to the triple whammy of World War One, The Great Depression, and World War Two, the project was abandoned in the 1940s.
Currently, there is no public access (we had to work through a number of city officials to get access to just the Race Street station for photos), although local tour operators are petitioning the city with plans to make the space accessible, safe, and — perhaps, finally — open for business.
Head to the gallery above for photos of several of Cincinnati's underground areas, including the abandoned subway at the Race Street station.