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The Fascinating Remains of Rochester's 'Subway'

The city still hasn't figured out what to do with an exposed 1.5 mile tunnel in the heart of downtown.

Flickr/Irina Souiki

Not much of Rochester, New York's rapid transit system remains. The network of rail cars launched in 1927 and served its last passenger on June 30, 1956.

The system was built thanks to a diversion of the Erie Canal, which left the city with unused, below-grade land. But like so many cities at the time, Rochester's ambitions quickly shifted to the suburbs, as is rosily displayed in this 1963 promotional film. The city invested in new highways and sprawl; the 8.5 mile, 24-station system suffered as a result.

Referred to by most locals as a subway, the transit system only went underground for 1.5 miles as it passed through the heart of downtown and an aqueduct over the Genesee River. A majority of the service was below street level, but uncovered.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Rochester Municipal Archives

By 1947, ridership had peaked at 5.1 million rides a year. Soon, the city began to cut service as private vehicles became more popular. In 1951, in a late push for survival, the Rochester Transit Corporation began adding illuminated signage and repainting railcars. It was too little, too late. The transit system went fully out of service five years later. The City Planning Commission decided to use part of the leftover right-of-way to connect Rochester to the new New York State thruway system. Other below-grade sections were filled in for street-level development.

The covered portion downtown can still easily be explored, a glaring reminder to everyone that after half a century, city officials and residents still haven't figured out what to do with a fascinating remain of Rochester's history. "I don't know that there is any consensus which is most likely the problem and why nothing has been done," says Mike Governale, who runs, a local urbanism blog. 

For now, it serves as a popular destination for urban explorers and graffiti artists. As more cities find ways to reuse their above-ground railways, Rochester sits on a unique underground asset. "All I need to do is to take a walk along the Highline," says Governale, "and it becomes painfully clear to me that we're missing out on something."

From 2013. Courtesy Flickr user Joe Philipson.
From 2013. Courtesy Flickr user Alex Tong.
From 2013. Courtesy Flickr user Alex Tong.
From 2011. Courtesy Flickr user Zack Seward.
From 2011. Courtesy Flickr user CanvasVandal.
From 2009. Courtesy Flickr user Shawn Porter.
From 2009. Courtesy Flickr user Shawn Porter.
From 2009. Courtesy Flickr user Scallop Holden.

Top image courtesy Flickr user Irina Souiki

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