Filed Under Transportation

The Downtown Subway Plan

Sinking a Six-Decade Dream

Imagine descending an escalator from USBank Plaza and boarding a subway bound for Tower City Center. Mayor Tom Johnson first proposed a Cleveland subway in 1905, and the idea surfaced repeatedly thereafter. After several failed attempts between the world wars, the city came closest to realizing this dream in 1953, when Cuyahoga County voters approved a $35 million bond issue for a downtown circulator subway by a two-to-one margin. The most discussed route would have traversed a loop from the Cleveland Union Terminal to Superior Avenue and East 9th Street, then to Euclid Avenue and East 13th Street, and back along Huron Road to its origin. Although popular with the public, freeway advocate and county engineer Albert S. Porter persuaded county commissioners to nix the plan in 1957.

Two years later, Playhouse Square area merchants had grown alarmed by the drop in business that afflicted many American downtown retailers by the late 1950s. With the bond issue set to expire in a matter of months, a group led by officers of the Halle Bros. Co. department store and the owner of the Hanna Building worked behind the scenes to reopen the debate. They got a big boost when the City Planning Commission wrote a subway into Downtown Cleveland-1975, a master plan to guide future development in the city's heart. The plan, which now featured a simpler hook-shaped route under East 14th and Euclid, prompted a bitter feud between downtown interests in Playhouse Square and those near Public Square. The former had long clamored for easier access for transit riders. The latter, especially the Higbee Co. with its advantageous basement entrance adjacent to the Union Terminal rail platforms, frowned upon the subway idea.

It may never be known exactly why the county commissioners voted down the subway again in 1959. Some alleged that a sizable bribe bought the decisive vote against the tube. True or not, it is clear that Porter succeeded in creating a situation ripe for defeat. Although Toronto had recently completed a similar subway that reinforced its downtown as a vigorous hub, Porter warned darkly of buildings collapsing into the "quicksand" beneath Euclid Avenue and stores with their utilities cut off for weeks on end. He insisted that no one who could drive on a new freeway would think of being packed in "sardine" fashion into a railcar.

In the 1980s the idea of a subway reemerged in the form of the Dual Hub Corridor, a combination downtown subway and at-grade rail link with University Circle along Euclid Avenue. As cost estimates soared, the idea was scaled back, and the RTA Healthline ultimately opened as a bus rapid transit system in 2008. Meanwhile, the issue of how to distribute transit riders all over downtown found resolution when downtown interests banded together with RTA to fund a system of free trolley buses whose digital overhead destination signs exclaim, "Smile and Ride Free!"


Cleveland's Downtown Subway Plan Architect William Gould describes the ill-fated plan to build a subway in Cleveland. Source: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities


"A Sad Story" William Gould, an architect in Cleveland who served on the Cleveland Planning Commission, discusses a proposed subway underneath Euclid Avenue and laments that it was never built. He erroneously pegs the 1953 public vote in 1948, and his mention of a Euclid Avenue route refers to the route that only became favored six years later before the county commissioners ultimately rejected it. However, he gives a clear sense of the supporters and opposition. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
"Life Along Euclid Avenue Would Have Been Better" Malcolm Cutting, whose father Richard Hawley Cutting was among the planners who studied the feasibility of various routes for a downtown subway in the 1950s, shares his belief that a subway, if extended to University Circle, would have meant a healthier Euclid Avenue. A half century later, the RTA Healthline has contributed to the street's revitalization after many years of decay. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection


Platform Level Rendering, 1955 This is a conceptual drawing of the proposed downtown subway platform level as envisioned in 1955 beneath Superior Avenue and East 9th Street. Source: Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw, Cleveland Subway: Operating and Feasibility (Cleveland, 1955) Date: 1955
Euclid Avenue Subway Plan, 1931 This schematic map depicts one of many iterations of downtown subways envisioned for Cleveland over the years. In this version, a straight-line subway would have conveyed streetcars underground between West 6th and East 22nd streets (roughly from the today's Warehouse District to Cleveland State University). The elaborate triple turnaround beneath Public Square had a simpler alternative, shown in the inset--a garden-variety turnaround at East 22nd. The spaghetti-like loops under Public Square would have preserved a longstanding rule that cars approaching from both east and west did not cross Ontario Street, while the alternative would have allowed eastbound riders from the West Side to proceed unimpeded to East Side destinations along Euclid Avenue--a boon for stores and theaters east of Public Square. Source: Cleveland Press, June 8, 1931, courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Handy on a Rainy Day According to this $40 million World War II-era transit plan, not only would a subway pass beneath Public Square, pedestrians could also circulate through subterranean passages to reach basement entrances to nearby office buildings and stores--similar to setups that have since appeared in Montreal and Toronto. Interestingly, this plan also reveals one of many redesign proposals over the years for Public Square in which planners sought to eliminate the at-grade intersection of Ontario and Superior. Note that the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is absent. Many Clevelanders decried the monument as hopelessly Victorian around midcentury, and this and a later subway plan in 1959 would have tunneled under the Square in such a way that they would have forced the removal of the monument! Source: Cleveland Press, March 29, 1945, courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Snowstorm on Euclid Avenue, 1950 One of the arguments aimed especially at women shoppers was the convenience and comfort of being able to avoid winter weather havoc such as in this scene when traveling downtown to Cleveland's many shops. At the time the subway plan was being debated, downtown still had six major department stores and was ranked the nation's sixth largest retail center. For many downtown interests, a subway promised to maintain retail strength in the face of growing suburban competition. Source: Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw, Cleveland Subway: Operating and Feasibility (Cleveland, 1955)
Proposed Subway Route, 1955 The planning firm Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw's "Plan B" map outlines the routes of proposed Downtown and Euclid Avenue subways, as well as existing routes and proposed extensions of above-ground rapid transit lines. As this map makes clear, the subway was to be a very small piece of the larger metropolitan rapid transit system, albeit an important piece. Source: Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw, Cleveland Subway: Operating and Feasibility (Cleveland, 1955)
The Subway as Presented in the Press, 1953 Captioned "What the Subway Means to You," this Cleveland Press diagram aimed squarely at voters who would soon have to decide whether to approve a $35 million bond issue to construct a downtown subway for Cleveland's anticipated heavy-rail system. The subway, in this argument, was the linchpin for obtaining the larger system, and the huge downtown loop inset not made the subway visible in some detail but also amplified its importance to the whole city. Source: Cleveland Press, October 24, 1953, courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Cutaway: East 9th and Huron Road Cutaway illustration of proposed downtown subway station at East 9th Street and Huron Road. Source: Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw, Cleveland Subway: Operating and Feasibility (Cleveland, 1955)
Cutaway: East 13th and Euclid Avenue
In this cutaway illustration of proposed downtown subway station looking north on East 13th Street from Euclid Avenue, the Sterling Lindner Davis department store is visible to the left. Cowell & Hubbard stands to the right with the Middough Building to its rear. The subway, according to the primary planned loop route, would have run beneath present-day Star Plaza in Playhouse Square. A later variant in the 1959 plan would have placed the Playhouse Square station one block east outside the Hanna Building at Euclid and East 14th. Source: Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw, Cleveland Subway: Operating and Feasibility (Cleveland, 1955)
Administering the Riding Habit Survey, 1955 Seventy college students from Case Tech were employed by the engineering firm studying the downtown subway plan to survey CTS transit riders to learn more about their transit needs. Here Case student Bill McConnell administers the survey to Ella Jane Krewson of Lakewood. Source: Cleveland Press, July 21, 1955, courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
1955 Planning Survey Cleveland Transit Service (CTS), predecessor to RTA, placed dozens of field workers in downtown Cleveland in 1955 to distribute this survey to incoming transit passengers from outlying neighborhoods and suburbs to ascertain where they went from Public Square. County Engineer Albert Porter, whose name appears on the card, went on to oppose the subway plan. Source: Praeger-Cutting-DeLeuw, Cleveland Subway: Operating and Feasibility (Cleveland, 1955)
Pro-Subway Stance, 1957 The Cleveland Press made no secret of its staunch support for the downtown subway. It warned that County Engineer Albert Porter's opposition to the subway and to transit more generally would create hopeless snarls of traffic to and from downtown. Source: Cleveland Press, April 11, 1957, courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
One Man with a Decision, 1959 Three County Commissioners had to decide (again) the ultimate fate of the subway in 1959 before the bond issue, approved by a 2-1 margin by Cuyahoga County voters six years earlier, expired the next year--but only one man's mind wasn't made up by that time. Henry W. Speeth had been vehemently opposed to the subway since the earlier 1940s plans emerged. Frank Gorman, by contrast, was friendly toward the subway effort. William "Pat" Day, the youngest and newest commissioner, therefore felt the brunt of the looming vote. He maintained at least the appearance of impartiality to both sides of the issue right up to the end. Source: Cleveland Press, December 16, 1959, courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections



J. Mark Souther, “The Downtown Subway Plan,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 12, 2022,