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Ghostly tunnels of the abandoned Rochester Subway

June 2021

Light rail transit services have been a popular public transportation choice for cities since the 1800s. Some are built at grade on public streets, while others are built on their own dedicated corridor, sometimes above ground, and sometimes below grade.

When the Erie Canal in western New York State was re-routed to bypass downtown Rochester in 1918, municipal councillors seized on the opportunity to build their own subway transit route using the abandoned canal route.

When talking about a subway, many people think of something that is underground, but in this case, it refers to a transit line that is also below grade in an open trench. In the case of the Rochester Subway, only two miles of the total seven mile route was completely hidden from view by an underground tunnel. This section was built using a cut-and-cover tunnel method, with Broad Street being constructed overtop of the tunnel portion.

Officially called the Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway, it began operations on 1 December 1927. The west terminus for the subway was at the General Motors Station beside the General Motors plant, although prior to 1937, it was at the nearby Driving Park. The line then proceeded east in the open canal trench, going underground in a tunnel at Broad Street, before re-emerging near Court Street. The eastern terminus was at the Rowlands Station, near Monroe Avenue and Westfall Road.

The subway was operated under contract by the New York State Railway until 1938, then by the Rochester Transit Corporation.

While subways are usually not architecturally stunning, the Rochester Subway utilizes a historic stone aqueduct to traverse over the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. Originally known as the Second Genesee Aqueduct, it was built between 1836 and 1842. With an overall length of 800 feet, including the wings and abutments, and a width of 70 feet and massive parapets on either side, it is one of four major aqueducts built in the mid-19th century for the Erie Canal.

The Rochester Subway was not a big money-maker, and would ultimately have a short 28-year life, with the Rochester Transit Corporation terminating passenger service being on 30 June 1956. Freight traffic continued to use the rail line, operated by the Rochester Transit Corporation until 1957, when the rail operations were turned over to the New York Central and Baltimore & Ohio Railways.

The eastern portion of the rail line was abandoned starting in 1959. The open-cut portion from Court Street to Winton Road became part of the newly constructed Eastern Expressway (I-490), with the section from Winton Road to Rowlands being used for I-590.

The western open-cut portion saw limited freight traffic until 1976, when city council decided to close and fill in the rail line, citing the maintenance costs of the bridges. The New York Museum of Transportation was allowed to salvage the rails before the bed was covered over.

Only the below ground tunnel portion of the rail line remained in operation at this point, used for rail deliveries to Gannett Newspapers at their printing operations in the Gannett Building at the west end of the Broad Street Bridge. This venture continued until 1996, when the life of the Rochester Subway finally came to an end.

Today, all that remains of the subway tunnel is the section from East Main Street to Court Street. The City of Rochester decided to fill-in the western portion of the tunnel in 2010, citing safety concerns.

What will ultimately become of the remaining, abandoned section is unknown. In 2018, the city sought out operators who would be interested in operating the segment of tunnel between Main Street and Exchange Street as an underground parking garage, but there were no takers. For now, it remains the domain of urban explorers and graffiti artists.

The Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum was allowed to collect the remaining rails, switches and other railroad fixtures before the tunnel was filled-in. The museum also has Trolley Car #60, the only surviving example from the 12-car fleet that once served the subway. It was originally built in 1916 for Utica Railways and moved to Rochester in 1936. It had been saved from the scrapyard in 1956, and donated to the Rochester Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

Locomotive L-2 was also rescued from a scrapyard in the 1970s, and has been set aside for a potential future restoration by the New York Museum of Transportation.

Sources: Rochester subway – Wikipedia, The End of the Line – Rochester’s Subway – The historical documentary now on DVD (animatusstudio.com), Abandoned Subway – Rochester Wiki (rocwiki.org).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/ghostly-tunnels-of-the-abandoned-rochester-subway/

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