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Take a peek inside the stunning, abandoned Rochester subway tunnels

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Beneath the streets of downtown Rochester lies a dark, abandoned tunnel with walls covered in colorful graffiti.

The faint sounds of traffic echo through the musty passage as flickers of light punctuate the darkness.

Being inside the stone burrow is considered trespassing on city property, but the allure of the space draws people underground, nonetheless.

“You can imagine subway cars rolling through and it brings an incredible amount of nostalgia,” said Rochester-based graffiti artist Justin Suarez, who has brought to life more than 100 murals in the tunnel over the last 16 years. “The trains and idea of a subway itself are a big part of what everyone is enchanted by."

But the dark passage also can be disorienting and nerve-wracking, he said.

"Anybody can creep up on everybody down there."

The city's tried to keep people out. Over the years, more accessible entry points have been sealed off. But the curious continue to find their way beneath the surface.

"No site better represents the many layers of our city’s history," said Michael Brown, a Rochester resident and history professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "And no site better represents the complexity of our city’s identity." 

For nearly 30 years, between 1927 and 1956, a light rail rapid transit line shuttled people from Brighton to Rochester. The 9-mile long railway, known by most as the Rochester subway, was designed to reduce growing congestion on city streets and facilitate freight between five railroad companies.

The abandoned subway has become a "cultural underground," drawing both artists and the curious beneath Rochester's streets.
The abandoned subway has become a "cultural underground," drawing both artists and the curious beneath Rochester's streets.
LAUREN PETRACCA/@laurenpetracca/, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Few traces of the subway line exist. Carefully crafted murals cover every inch of the walls and arch pillars within the tunnel. Artists tag creations to mark their presence. The images and names change constantly, a rotating underground art gallery.

The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

While the canal and Rochester's subway system were celebrated as part of the city's history, the afterlife of the railway's tunnels became "a symbol of Rochester’s boom times going bust," Brown said.

This is some alt text Lauren Petracca/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
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Mike Governale, creator of RochesterSubway.com
The subway is the perfect metaphor for Rochester.

"It’s a history of Rochester’s economic decline and distressed downtown," Brown said. "It’s the experiences of people seeking refuge in the tunnels as a relatively warm, dry place. It’s the graffiti writers and punk bands and others for whom the space became a cultural underground as well as a literal one."

For more than a century Rochesterians have debated how to best use the space, and today continue to consider many options. Should it be transformed into a pedestrian promenade? Would it be best to simply fill it in?

Or should city officials simply leave it be?

"The subway is the perfect metaphor for Rochester," said Mike Governale, who launched RochesterSubway.com in 2009 as an online spot to share notes about Rochester’s transportation system, history and infrastructure. "Everybody has these grand ideas that are good ideas and bring a lot of energy to the community. But the ideas never seem to get off the ground."

Rochester's 'interesting experiment'

Ridership peaked on Rochester's subway just after World War II.
Ridership peaked on Rochester's subway just after World War II.
File photo

Planning for the subway began in the early 1920s, when cars were still a novelty. The railway operated between 1927 and 1956, with the last full day of passenger service on June 30, 1956.

The project cost $12 million to complete, roughly twice as much as what was originally proposed, City Historian Christine Ridarsky said.

The city went for it anyway.

“It was an interesting experiment,” said Jim Dierks, a trustee at the New York Museum of Transportation in Rush. “While it promised expedited passenger service downtown, it also came together as the country entered the Great Depression.”

As a result of the economic downslope, ridership dropped.

Six years after the subway started operating, Rochester's city engineering department recommended eliminating transit service, paving over the railway and converting the rail line into a roadway, Ridarsky said.

Annual ridership increased from less than 1.5 million passengers in the late '30s through wartime, in part due to rationing and the improving business climate. Ridership peaked in 1946 and 1947, with both years seeing more than 5.1 million passengers transported by rail. Another ridership decline happened after World War II, as city residents started moving to the suburbs.

The costs of updating the aging railway system and replacing passenger cars and the push to add a highway to connect the nearby thruway to Rochester led city officials first to reduce service, then end it altogether.

What was left, including roughly 2 miles that operated underground and in tunnels through parts of the city, has been filled in, repurposed or simply abandoned.

Remnants of the railway

Just about every inch of the subway over the Genesee River including the archway is filled with graffiti. Graffiti artists use the former subway tunnel in downtown Rochester as their canvas on June 9, 2021.
Just about every inch of the subway over the Genesee River including the archway is filled with graffiti. Graffiti artists use the former subway tunnel... Just about every inch of the subway over the Genesee River including the archway is filled with graffiti. Graffiti artists use the former subway tunnel in downtown Rochester as their canvas on June 9, 2021.
Tina MacIntyre-Yee /Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

A stone aqueduct was built between 1836 and 1842 to carry the Erie Canal over the Genesee River. The bridge replaced an earlier one that carried the canal through center city. Leftovers of the original bridge's foundation are most noticeable on the northeast side of the current span.

The canal was key to the development of Rochester, prompting an economic boom when it opened. By the early 20th century, though, the waterway became a hurdle to urban development.

In 1918, a significant portion of the canal in Monroe County was rerouted, with a new section connecting the old canal system between Pittsford and Gates.

Down in the Broad Street Bridge aqueduct, some railway tracks and overhead conduits that once carried electricity to the moving passenger cars still can be seen. The area is the largest remaining stretch of the former railway and is owned by the city, which inspects the area every two years.

The bridge's second layer was added specifically for the railway in the 1920s. A roadway was placed atop the aqueduct in 1927 to carry cars, and it was named Broad Street.

The West Main and Oak Street Station as it looked in 1925 and what it had decayed to by 1975. Those columns still exist and retain the same look 46 years later.
file photo/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Some tracks continued freight rail service for several more decades. The western portion of the route operated until 1976. Rail freight deliveries in the subway tunnel below Broad Street continued until 1997, when the Democrat and Chronicle moved its printing press from its Exchange Boulevard building to Greece.

“Perhaps what’s most important are rights-of-way,” said Jim Dierks at the New York Museum of Transportation.

What once was the Erie Canal became the subway line after the canal was redirected from downtown. Some of the railway’s rights-of-way became parts of interstate highways and the Inner Loop that swoops through and divides neighborhoods in Rochester.

The crumbling remains of what was once part of a busy trolley stop is along Goodman Street, just south of Interstate 490. 

The lone existing passenger car from the subway's 12-car fleet is housed at the Rochester and Genesee Valley Railroad Museum. The partially rehabilitated trolley was built in 1916 for service in Utica and moved to Rochester in the mid-'30s.

Future plans below the city

The subway was originally 9 miles long.  Today, graffiti artists use the former subway tunnel in downtown Rochester as their canvas.
The subway was originally 9 miles long. Today, graffiti artists use the former subway tunnel in downtown Rochester as their canvas.
Tina MacIntyre-Yee /Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rochesterians continue to debate how to best use the abandoned railway tunnel, known by some as the subway or aqueduct, since the railway stopped operating 65 years ago. 

"What's most important is finding ways to preserve the history, whether it's within the physical structure or another way of preserving the stories," Ridarsky said. "We need to take these layers of history and not let one historic moment overshadow the others."

Rather than envisioning what the space could become, Brown said, it is vital to recognize what the space currently is — as a place of refuge for the homeless, an unsanctioned canvas for artists and a rite of passage for many urban explorers.

The people who use the space the most regularly, including the graffiti artists who put the spot on the map, haven’t had a voice at all, he said.

Graffiti artists use the former subway tunnel in downtown Rochester as their underground canvas.
Tina MacIntyre-Yee /Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

"Painting in a subway is the holy grail for graffiti artists," said Justin Suarez, who now more often paints murals on the water tower in Rochester's Cobbs Hill Park. 

Part of the allure to create art underground, Suarez said, is the ability to paint without the interruption or danger of approaching trains. 

The space offers a place for artists to practice and hone their craft, he said, and an opportunity for people to express themselves through their artwork.

Suarez said he scaled back on his time in the tunnel in recent years after the most accessible entry ways were removed, including the demolition of the former Court Street subway station in 2017. A building now stands on the site, which was the most common tunnel entry point.

The closure significantly changed the vibe within the passage as well, Suarez said.

"Our defacements get defaced much quicker now," he said, noting that graffiti culture etiquette encourages an artist to only paint over another artist's work to improve the space. But lately, he said, youngsters scribble on top of time-consuming murals.

Roughly a decade ago, part of the old subway tunnel north of West Main Street was filled in. Through the same project, space later earmarked to become an underground parking garage was repaired. 

"Rochester would be losing a huge asset if the (tunnel) was filled in or developed further," he said.

A common recommendation is the removal of Broad Street's street-level roadway paired with flooding the subway and canal bed on the aqueduct with water. Another recent push suggested converting the Broad Street aqueduct into a two-story passageway with shops and restaurants.

The city’s current plan to revamp the 180-year-old stone bridge is part of a larger waterfront project that centers on the Genesee River. 

The project would include a pedestrian promenade, which could eliminate all vehicles on Broad Street. Or it could remove the street deck on Broad Street to transform the aqueduct tunnel into a community space that would connect the Genesee River Trail over the river.

Later this year the city will issue a request for proposals for preliminary designs for the aqueduct and a riverfront promenade, said city spokesperson. 

"The reimagined aqueduct will be the centerpiece of downtown transformation and is a vital component in achieving the overall goal of the ROC the Riverway campaign — bringing people to the Genesee River," the city said.

New York City transplant Governale started his blog as a way to explore Rochester, learn more about the city's history and to connect with others. He retired the blog more than three years ago, but it remains online.

"The subway really weaves its way through Rochester's history, starting with the canal," Governale said. "It's such a cool space today, with the artwork and remnants of history still noticeable. I know the subway is never coming back, though it would be awesome if it did, but a community discussion on what to do with the space is most important. And the community is taking it in a good direction."

Brown said people and history should not be elbowed aside to make way for something that doesn’t properly represent Rochester’s past.

There’s no other place in Rochester with such layers, Brown said.

“I’d hate to see taking something that is distinctly and uniquely Rochester and replacing it with something generic,” Brown said. “Cities don’t succeed by being generic.”

Contact Victoria Freile at vfreile@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @vfreile and Instagram @vfreile. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.  

Take a virtual walk through Rochester's subway
Take a walk through a portion of Rochester's subway
Tina MacIntyre-Yee, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
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