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Museum Center’s Underground Revenue Source

By Steven Rosen · May 4th, 2011 · The Big Picture

Let it not be said (as you might have heard or read) that the Cincinnati subway never hosted a paying customer.

In fact, visits to the abandoned tunnels under Central Parkway intended for the never-completed system have become a nice, if underground, funding source for Cincinnati Museum Center’s education programs.

Who said mass transit can’t pay dividends for Cincinnati?

This Saturday, the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Heritage Program will lead five separate tour groups — each with room for 50 people — down into the tunnel to the station at Race Street and Central Parkway. Tickets are sold out (at $55 per person; $50 for Museum Center members) and there’s a waiting list of more than 100 people, says Janice Forte, Heritage Program coordinator.

The Museum Center has been allowed by the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering to request one tour day a year, although it got two back-to-back ones last year because public demand was so great.

“We’ve already sent a petition to the city for another subway tour next year,” Forte says.

“It went in a week ago.”

The subway, two miles of which were built in the 1920s before money ran out in 1927, contains three underground stations under Central Parkway — at Race Street, Liberty Street and in Brighton. It was part of what was to be a larger, 16-mile rapid-transit system, for which some tunnels and aboveground stations were also built.

The Heritage Program tours, in their 13 years, have grown in popularity. By the time the last tour of this year (Oct. 15’s “Inclines and Outlooks”) is over, close to 1,000 people will have taken one. There have already been three and upcoming excursions “The Crosleys and the American Dream,” “Up a Not-So-Lazy River” and the “Inclines” tour are all sold out. There are some tours that still have tickets available. (Visit www.cincymuseum.org/heritage-programs for information.)

But the subway tour is by far the most popular. And it raises the largest portion of the $60,000 that the volunteer-run Heritage Program annually contributes to Museum Center educational programming. The high interest is due to an ongoing fascination with the mysterious tunnels, fed by subway-related books like Jake Mecklenborg’s historical Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway and Jim DeBrosse’s thriller novel, Hidden City.

Given the demand, an expansion of museum-sponsored subway tourism — or even a conversion of the subway into a museum, a la the bunker-style Titan Missile Museum in Arizona — would seem to have keen potential.

But there is one not-so-small problem. The city runs a 48-inch water line through the tunnel, en route from the California Water Works to Western Hills, explains John Luginbill, who has been monitoring subway demand for the city since 1998. The line has to be shut down before visitors can go inside, since there’s always the threat it could break and flash-flood the tunnel. (There is a back-up water line.)

So the city only allows tours on four days a year, two in spring and two in fall. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber regularly visits as part of its leadership-training program; others who have been given permission to tour are school and engineering groups and a concrete contractors’ association.

Given the interest and with the city in need of revenue, what about relocating the water line and then charging for regularly scheduled tours?

“I wonder about that,” Luginbill says. “(But) the lure of the forbidden may be part of the draw.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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