Just more than 60 years ago, on June 30, 1956, the last subway train rumbled through the underground tracks in the heart of Rochester, NY. The stations went silent, the lights went out and the tunnels, established on the previous watery path of the legendary Erie Canal, were abandoned.
Like so many other ideas, the subterranean electric trolley car system started off with much anticipation and high expectations.
Rochester was a city on the upswing in the early 1900s and, in an effort to boost downtown development, the Erie Canal was re-routed to bypass the city’s core in 1918. The trenches, no longer filled with water, were a perfect footprint upon which to build a transit system at a time when cars were starting to fill the streets and the above-ground streetcars were getting in the way. Tracks were laid, electric grids were installed and the first passengers took the inaugural ride on the system in 1927. One of the city’s main thoroughfares, Broad Street, was built on top of the underground tracks.
The Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway, or Rochester Subway, wasn’t fully underground—only two miles of the seven-mile system were buried—but the tracks were grade-separated from other roads. The tracks themselves were dual purpose, providing not only public transit but serving as a link with the industrial railroad service that sped through town. In all, there were roughly 22 stops on the transit map, including a handful of stations that offered connections to other train lines en route to Buffalo or New York City or shopping complexes.
During the transit system’s first few years, things were going rather well. The Rochester and Eastern Rapid Railway connected with the Rochester subway from the Rowlands station through City Hall; the Rochester and Syracuse Railroad, connecting the two Lake Ontario cities, began using the tracks in 1928; the Rochester, Lockport and Buffalo Railroad entered the city’s west side using a dedicated ramp constructed at Lyell Avenue in 1928, and the following year a special subway-surface service connected the Emerson station with Dewey Avenue for rush-hour service to Kodak Park, as the film maker was one of the largest employers in the city at the time.
When the Great Depression hit, the state railway corporation gave up its operations of municipal transportation services, meaning the Rochester system could no longer provide an option for suburban workers trying to get into the city. The purse strings began to tighten almost immediately and by 1940, regular service was restricted.
Some blame the city’s lack of extending track to the outer lying suburbs for the system’s financial woes: while ridership peaked during WWII as gas and rubber shortages and rations made public transit the popular mode of transportation, the city never went through with proposed plans to build new stations and provide extended service. The city proposed building a high-speed expressway by the early 1950s and, when a chunk of the subway route was given over for the construction of I-490, that was the beginning of the end.
Weekday service was reduced. By 1952, Sunday service was eliminated altogether. Four years later, the city council voted to end the service, which had been operating on a month-to-month basis for some time.
The tracks were in use for decades after the subway system was eliminated, by freight cars until 1957; in the western portion of the system as a way to ferry material to the General Motors plant until 1976, and by the city’s Gannett Newspaper printing operation for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle until 1996 when the plant moved to a new location.
Now out of use for its intended purposes for six decades, the abandoned underground portion of the subway has become a popular destination for the types of curious droves that frequent abandoned industrial settings: graffiti artists, teenagers and 20-somethings looking for a place to hang out, drink, smoke or tell ghost stories, a portion of the city’s homeless population and, every so often, history seekers who want to take a look at what once was.
The city is currently entertaining possible redevelopment plans adopt the abandoned stations, including a possible five-story complex with luxury apartments and commercial space, next to the iconic Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (which is delicious and a sight to behold on its own, by the way).
There’s been discussion about filling in the whole expanse to prevent any liability should any of the brick arches fall on someone as they continue to decay, or converting the track into an underground bike path. There’s also talk of maybe giving it to the people who already use it most and turning the two-mile stretch, or some portion thereof, into an art gallery. Some stretches are filled with water—there’s even a catwalk perilously perched above it for thrill seekers and the curious alike to take a different view. History buffs and hipsters alike have grown fond of the abandoned subway and are doing their part to preserve some portion for…some use, including the sale of posters, tokens, t-shirts and other ephemera as a reminder of what used to be.