Subways reduce the number of commuters congesting city streets and tackle the environmental impact of countless car exhausts. So it’s strange to find an entire subway system abandoned, and a city with no real idea of what to do with it. Welcome to Rochester, New York. Urban explorers are intrigued at the thought of a complex network of subterranean passageways and tunnels beneath our feet. For most people never get to see them – or even know that they exist.
Passing through ghost stations, like City Hall in New York City, by train can be compelling, while entire subways that were built and never used, like Cincinnati, are as rare as they are a waste of public money. But stranger still are fully functioning subways that operate for several decades and then fall into disuse for no good reason. That’s the story of Rochester’s rapid transit system, which served city residents from 1927 until 1956.
The story of the Rochester Subway (aka Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway) dates back to 1918 when the Erie Canal was re-routed to bypass downtown Rochester. The canal was abandoned a year later before engineers transformed it into the now ghostly rapid transit system. Tracks were laid where canal boats once floated and a roof was added, along which ran the new “Broad Street”. The result was a two mile stretch of underground streetcar line easing traffic from the streets above.
It seemed like an ideal opportunity to reuse old industrial land (namely the canal) and create a cost effective new underground railway. Better still, connecting interurban lines (and freight) were routed via the subway to reduce congestion above, and the Second Genesee Aqueduct of the former Erie Canal was adapted to accomodate both the subway and Broad Street (above).
When Rochester’s subway reached its metaphorical end of the line, its fate wasn’t sealed by dwindling passenger numbers, but a new epoch in which the car become affordable for the masses. At that time, about half of the railway, from Court Street to Rowlands, was replaced by the Eastern Expressway in 1956, and the rest of the subway closed later that year.
It seems ironic today, when planners constantly look for new ways to promote cleaner modes of transport, while simultaneously thinking up ways to reduce congestion on city streets. In the city of Rochester, the solution seems to be hiding in plain view beneath city bosses’ noses in the form of a purpose built subway system just waiting to be brought back to life.
But city bosses can’t seem to decide what to do with it, and repairs to the crumbling tunnel costs around $1.2 million each year. According to Laurie Mercer, “It’s either a giant hole waiting to be filled with dirt or an impressive asset in a city that needs to revitalize its downtown.” In 2004, city officials decided to go down the “dirt track”, so to speak, but changed their minds when the decision led to a public outcry by citizens who considered the subway a part of their history. (Photo above shows a streetcar stopping at City Hall station.)
Numerous proposals ranged from the realistic to the radical – from reinstating the rapid transit system to flooding the tunnels with water for the Erie Canal to rise from the ashes. But in 2008 the city voted to fill in part of the tunnel due to safety concerns. Under the banner of “Broad Street Tunnel Improvement project” (meaning: filling the Broad Street Tunnel with dirt), the western end is set to be blocked off at a cost of $14 to $16 million.
While a section of the subway between Main Street and the aqueduct will remain intact, it’s unlikely to ever house a new rapid transit system. A local group called Rochester Subway is one of the best places to find info about the subway’s past and its impending doom at the mercy of city officials. Stay informed here, and let us know your views. Is this a good move for the city or an opportunity missed? Either way, Rochester Subway: RIP.
Keep reading – explore more ghost stations, abandoned subways and rapid transit systems, or travel to London to check out Holborn station in the disused Kingsway Tramway Subway, or the forgotten subterranean tunnels of South Kentish Town Tube.