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Cleveland’s ‘subway’ rail line tour attracts thousands

August 19, 2018 GMT

Cleveland’s ‘subway’ rail line tour attracts thousands

CLEVELAND – Thousands of families, many from the suburbs, showed up Saturday for free self-tours of what has been called Cleveland’s first – and only – subway line.

The destination was the Veterans Memorial Bridge, built during World War I and known as the Detroit-Superior Bridge until it was finally dedicated in 1988 on its 70th anniversary.

The bridge was built with two decks, the top one for automobiles and pedestrians, the lower one for light rail. The rails carried streetcars from the West Side, where they disappeared into the middle of West 25th Street, to the East Side, re-emerging in the middle of Superior Avenue a couple of blocks west of Public Square. 

The lower deck, which carried four sets of tracks, has had no official purpose since its closing in 1954, when electrical-powered streetcars succumbed to diesel buses.

But on Saturday, it became a family destination. Dressed in shorts and shirtsleeves, many pushing strollers, they took advantage of the near perfect weather to explore an architectural landmark and learn a little history.

Stretching more than 3,100 feet to span the Cuyahoga River with a center height of nearly 100 feet, the bridge was the first in the city tall enough to allow river traffic to move under it without having to swing out of the way.

Preservation and renovation work completed in 1969 added two additional lanes to the upper deck. Talk of re-opening the lower deck to cars concluded it would not be feasible.

The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, restored in 1996 and today spans generations as millennials flock downtown, unaware of much of its history. 

By 11 a.m. more than 1800 had registered at the county’s Department of Public Works Garage at 2433 Superior Viaduct, said Nada Moyak, a county IT employee and one of about 75 volunteers.

“They were lined up at the door,” Moyak said, during the briefest of interviews as she made sure visitors streaming into the place each received a tour map and brief history of the bridge.

The crowd had patiently threaded its way through a blockade of metal detectors staffed by stone-faced county sheriff deputies, a reminder that the threats to security in 2018 are different from those of 1918.

Before heading onto the bridge itself, visitors had the option to walk into the “subway” portion of the rail line, a tunnel looking every bit of 100 years old, gently curving southwest – until visitors were standing under the intersection of West 25th and Detroit Avenue.

The county had set up projectors and screens in two side tunnels to screen historical streetcar videos. Dozens of people watched while scores of others waited for a seat or stood and watched.

“This [event] is teaching people a lot of history about the city,” said Jeff Dobransky, a bridge inspector for the county, and a man who has spent considerable time inspecting the tunnels leading to the bridge as well as the bridge itself.

But Saturday he was there not as a volunteer but as a man who loves bridges. And loves helping people understand them.

“It’s structurally sound,” he said of the reinforced concrete walls and ceiling carrying the weight of the street above.

“But salt water [as in road salt] has leaked,” he added, shining the brilliant white beam of an LED flashlight at some rusting metal brackets carrying utility lines high above the heads of visitors.

“I’ve talked to people who used to ride [the trolley],” he added, continuing to illuminate the more distant concrete walls of the tunnel heading to the surface. “This is the second year of the tours,” he said. “I think the county is planning on doing more.”

Michael Dever, director of the county’s Department of Public Works, said in fact the county is planning on an event next summer, as early as July

Thousands attended the 2017 tour he said, and more than 10,000 had shown up by Saturday afternoon, he said. This year the bridge tour was part of the 16th annual Sparx City Hop citywide arts gallery tour.