Sean Kirst began his career as a writer for City Newspaper (he’s now a columnist at Syracuse’s Post Standard ). He says he fell in love with the haunting feel of Rochester’s subway tunnels and was intrigued to learn the subway began taking off just after World War II. But at a critical moment, the system was basically dismantled by community leaders who were already thinking “interstates.” Sean dug into the story and wrote a fairly in-depth story entitled “Rochester’s Adventure in Optimism.” It was published in City Newspaper on June 2, 1983. Thirty years later, City Newspaper has graciously allowed RocSubway to share the story with you again, here…
“We built, then abandoned, a multi-million dollar subway system. There’s talk now of developing the subway bed—for housing, business, and maybe even a museum.”
The subway system built in Rochester in the 1920’s was designed to serve a city of two million people. The city never grew that big, of course, and for the last 27 years, Rochester’s subway has been a deteriorating memorial to shattered dreams.
Initially, planners expected the subway to cost Rochester $1.8 million. By the time the final passenger stepped off a subway trolley car in 1956, interest and improvements had pushed the price tag to $20 million, a sizable investment in what Rochester Journal columnist Livy Richard called “an adventure in optimism.”
Since the subway carried its last passenger 27 years ago, there have been occassional spurts of interest in reopening the corridor for rapid transit use. But a lack of funding and the apparent lack of a need for rapid transit generally quickly snuffs the discussion out.
But there is serious talk in city hall of doing some restoration on the decaying subway corridor. Jim Malone, the city’s commissioner of environmental services, speaks of the possibility of residential, commercial, and industrial development of the weedy sunken rail bed that threads through northwest city neighborhoods.
And there is discussion by some city staff members of development of the underground subway tunnel downtown. The subway aqueduct beneath the Broad Street bridge is suddenly a logical and convenient candidate for a pedestrian walkway between the War Memorial and the rapidly-rising Convention Center.
In the city’s department of community development they speak of putting a rail museum in the aqueduct as an enhancement to the walkway. Some staff members have even suggested commercial development in the abandoned tunnel: the development of a sort of “underground Rochester,” with restaurants and taverns.
Most fascinating—and financially, perhaps the most far-fetched—is the talk of returning an operating subway car to the tunnel for the city’s sesquicentennial. It would be a mobile memorial to the thousands of people who invested money and labor in one of the most ambitious—but ill-fated—developments in the city’s history.
You can drive along much of the route. The subway line started near the Monroe Avenue exit of 590 in Brighton and traveled north above ground, with stops at Elmwood Avenue and Highland Avenue.
The subway veered into a complicated tangle of rail lines—a tangle caused by inter-urban trollies, the subway, and freight lines—at the present site of the Can of Worms .
“The Can of Worms is really a tradition carried over from the days of the subway,” says James Dierks, president of the New York Museum of Transportation in Henrietta. “It was confusing even then.”
The subway turned west at the Can, running toward the city on the present site of Route 490. Passengers boarded or disembarked at terminals at Winton Road, Culver Road, Monroe Avenue, and Meigs-Goodman.
The line became a full-fledged subway downtown, plunging underground at Court Street. It ran beneath the Rundel Library, hooked left to cross the Genesee, and followed the same path as Broad Street until it popped back above ground at Brown Street.
There were underground terminals at Court Street, Times Square, and West Main Street.
The northwest subway corridor had terminals at Lyell Avenue, Edgerton Park, Emerson Street, Lexington Avenue, and one final stop at Rochester Products.
Most of the old subway corridor in the northwest is still very evident—too evident to northwest neighborhood residents, who call it an eyesore and complain of property infringement by subway rodents.
Rochester’s subway was not important to the city merely for transportation purposes. It was also used as a freight connection between railways on opposite ends of the city. Actually, freight operation was the most profitable aspect of subway operation.
A piece of the underground subway is still in use. Freight trains traverse a small piece of the track to bring supplies to the Gannett Company, which uses a huge, walled-off section of the tunnel for newsprint storage.
When the Erie Canal was abandoned in the early portion of this century, it left an unimpeded right of way curving from one side of the city to the other. Running a trolley line through the canal bed seemed a unique and imaginative way of dealing with the land.
“You have to consider what city government was looking at when they built the line,” says John Thomas, a city transportation planner. “Today rapid transit relies on dense population, but in those days there was a tremendous inter-urban trolley system serving a scattered population.”
Automobiles, Thomas notes, were not as readily available as they are today. “Here was this perfect right-of-way running across the city,” he says. “A transit line must have seemed logical.”
Construction began in 1922. It continued for five years, through the movement of 70,000 cubic yards of rock and the detonation of 75,000 pounds of dynamite.
In the meantime, there was bickering between the city and the New York State Railways over control and operation of the passenger service; even before the subway was complete, the city was contemplating its conversion to a sunken automobile roadway.
Finally, on December 1, 1927, the subway began operation. The line consisted of trolley cars using overhead electrical lines for power; the system made pretty good time—the ride from Brighton to City Hall took about 7 ½ minutes.
Trolley cars were fast and economically efficient. They were also huge, dangerous beasts crowding pedestrians and automobiles off the streets. A sunken road bed put the cars in a more convenient—and safe—location.
City government was gambling on a surge of residential population around the subway—the population moving to the service rather than the service being taken to the population.
The gamble didn’t pay off. In the mid-1920’s annexation of suburbs was outlawed by the state legislature, and the city was locked into a permanent population base. The suburbs—with their population greatly isolated from the subway—began their great surge in growth.
Meanwhile, Kodak Park was expanding into huge industrial sprawl. But its thousands of employees had no direct link to the subway. Buses and above ground trolleys were much more convenient.
Passenger service steadily declined—in 1933 the subway carried only 593,000 passengers. There was more talk of converting the line to a roadway—perhaps an express route for buses and trucks—but then Harold MacFarlin came along and proved the subway could help solve the transit needs of the community.
The subway tunnel downtown is not totally abandoned. Kids go down in the Broad Street aqueduct before War Memorial rock concerts to drink beer and scrawl graffiti and smoke reefers. Transients often indulge in subterranean living; underground, intertwining pipes from Rochester Gas and Electric’s steam heating system provide a measure of warmth for the homeless in the winter.
There are still old rails and ties scattered throughout the tunnels. A crumbling stairway leads down to the abandoned Court Street ramp. All that remains of the subway canopy that once protected passengers from the elements is a fractured crucifix of splintered wood.
Thomas agrees it is to the city’s advantage to develop the tunnel. “The last time we were down there, we ran into some rodents,” he says. “We’ve also had some problems with transients going down there in the winter. It would be nice if we could clean it up.”
Before going into politics, Harold McFarlin worked in advertising. When he was appointed Rochester’s Commissioner of Commerce in 1938, he put his considerable promotion talents to work into selling the subway.
He came up with slogans. He ran advertisements in the newspapers. He cleaned up the subways and had police chase away loiterers. MacFarlin had the subway on the upswing when World War II began, turning the subway into a necessity.
Gasoline and rubber were rationed, making automobile use difficult. Subway use jumped to four million passengers in 1944. And when the war ended, subway use continued to climb.
“That makes sense,” Thomas says. “You have to figure all those people were coming home from the war, and most of them didn’t have cars.”
Over five million passengers used the subway in both 1946 and 1947, some 13,000 passengers per day. MacFarlin had grand ideas: he spoke of using existing rail lines for subway hookups with Kodak Park, Charlotte, Greece, and Irondequoit. He talked of running a loop of subway around the downtown business district.
But city government wasn’t very interested. Apparently the popular political feeling was that support for the subway—both in the public and the press—was more sentimental than practical.
Detroit was churning out motorcars and gasoline was cheap. It was the return of the day of the automobile.
MacFarlin was given cool treatment by City Council—it refused to appropriate more than the bare minimum of funding for subway maintenance. By the end of 1948 a frustrated MacFarlin resigned.
Subway usage dropped off. In 1949 a board of city and state engineers proposed eliminating the subway in favor of an expressway.
For the next six years the subway was a deteriorating lame duck, and service finally was discontinued in 1956.
“The development of the Broad Street Aqueduct hinges on the need created by the Convention Center,” says the city’s assistant commissioner of community development, Richard Sale. “If the need is there, it would be great to have some sort of combination of a musuem, a pedestrian walkway, and commercial development in a climate-controlled setting.”
The idea of placing an historical exhibit in the aqueduct was broached to the New York Museum of Transporation, which uses old subway ties for its summertime train rides in Henrietta. “We’re very receptive to the idea,” James Dierks says. And his eyes light up.
Dierks has a dream. Only one Rochester subway car survives: it is sitting in Albany, the property of the state. And the transportation museum has not been able to drum up enough money to bring the car home to Rochester.
The state is now considering putting the car in a downstate museum, Dierks says. “That would be a real shame,” he asserts. “But could you imagine if we proposed to bring the car back and have it running in the tunnel as a sesquicentennial display?”
Dierks envisions a local fund drive to bring the car to Rochester. “Our volunteers have wonderful mechanical abilities,” he says. “They could restore the car, but we don’t have the money to get it here.”
City planner John Thomas doesn’t object to the idea of running a trolley car in the downtown subway tunnel. but he doubts that the project is feasible. “It’s a great idea, but where would the money come from?” he asks.
“The area beneath the bridge is really quite beautiful,” Thomas says. “Sunlight comes through those old stone arches, and there’s a great view of the river and the skyline. It’s a valuable resource for the city.”
Thomas says it would be physically possible to place restaurants, shops, and taverns in the tunnel. But that, he says, boils down to finding money and a developer.
“I don’t really think those findings are feasible,” Thomas says. “You need to come up with appropriate public policy in a no-growth situation. I don’t really think the answer is rapid transit in the subway bed.”
“Besides,” Thomas adds, “Rochester is blessed with an efficient highway system.”
Despite his love of trains, Dierks also doubts the practicality of reviving the subway. “The automobile is insidious,” he says. “It’s a very expensive mode of transportation, but Americans have a love affair with their cars. I really don’t think rapid transit would work in Rochester.”
Chances are that the old subway tunnel downtown won’t ever be used for mass transit again. But if the money becomes available to fulfill even a portion of the plans envisioned by Sale, Thomas, and Dierks, the subway—once a canal, then a railway, now a decaying downtown cavity—might again be the focus for an adventure in optimism.
Update on Subway Car 60 (1/14/2013)
The last remaining Rochester subway car (mentioned in the article) is car #60. I contacted Jim Dierks to get an update on car 60. He says:
I also reached out to the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum for more information. More details on car #60 will be posted tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Many thanks to Sean Kirst, Mary Anna Towler, and everyone at City Newspaper for allowing this story to be retold and archived here.
Tags: City Newspaper, Harold McFarlin, history of Rochester, Jim Dierks, John Thomas, Mary Anna Towler, Mike Dow, National Railway Historical Society (NRHS), New York Museum of Transportation, NYMT, Richard Sale, Rochester, Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum, Rochester City Newspaper, Rochester history, Rochester NY, Rochester Subway, Rochester subway car 60, Rochester Subway photos, Rochester Subway tunnel, Sean Kirst
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