Hometown: Rochester, NY Entry by Allision Fricke

I grew up in Rochester, NY, that mysterious upstate city. It’s a six-hour drive from New York City. It is located on Lake Ontario, about an hour east of Niagara Falls. The City proper is home to about 200,000 people, while the metro area (which includes all of Monroe County and creeps into neighboring counties) numbers approximately 1 million people. It is the third largest city in the state behind New York City and Buffalo. (Take that, Syracuse!) All in all, even though Rochester is in New York State I’d characterize it as a Midwestern city with Canadian flair.

But there is a secret below the streets of Rochester, NY: an abandoned subway system.

Construction of the subway track on the Broad Street Aqueduct c.1922 (Rochester Public Library)

When the Erie Canal was expanded and re-routed in 1918 around the city of Rochester, the municipal government saw the abandoned Erie Canal path through the city as an opportunity. They purchased the old canal, laid railroad track, expanded the path a little bit, covered it up, and the Rochester subway system was born. The Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway, as it was known, opened in 1927. The project was conceived as a way to reduce surface traffic and to improve connectivity between industrial areas of the city.

The signs of trouble started early—rider dissatisfaction was often ignored—and as suburbanization took off, ridership dropped. In 1955 the city council voted to close the subway. The last subway ride occurred on June 30, 1956. The former subway riders were promptly redirected to the new I-490 highway. Now I-490 and I-590 trace much of the route that the Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway once took.

Abandoned subway (Joed Viera for newyorkupstate.com)

The subway was essentially closed off and abandoned. It is a simultaneously problematic, nostalgic, and aspirational place. The walls serve as a constantly changing art gallery for local graffiti artists. The subway tunnels encourage a rodent problem and have become occupied by some of Rochester’s homeless population. There are constant infrastructure and stability problems associated with the subway tunnels. The City of Rochester began the Broad Street Tunnel Improvement Project–basically a dirt infill project for part of the Broad Street tunnel–to stabilize the structure in 2010. And a recent luxury apartment development proposal would close off the east end of the subway. But these proposals, and others, to close off parts of the subway have been met with resistance.

Rochester may not have good public transportation any time soon, but the early precedent of a covered subway gives me hope that there could be one again. Until then, the abandoned subway remains one of those intriguing layers of Rochester history that Rochesterians just love, this author included.

Abandoned subway (Joed Viera for newyorkupstate.com)








Photo Sources:

Main and Photo 3: Joed Viera for newyorkupstate.com

Photo 1: Rochester Public Library

Photo 2: Joed Viera for newyorkupstate.com