Veterans Memorial Bridge Tour Provides Glimpse Into Cleveland's History

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Rita Sotu is 73 years old, and she remembers taking Cleveland’s streetcars downtown with her mom. Now, she’s on a tour of the old subway and rail system under the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

“It was always so much fun because we loved to come downtown and ride the trolleys.”

It used to be called the Detroit-Superior Bridge. People would board the trolley underground, and the old entrance is still there. It’s a staircase lined with subway tiles where people caught the streetcar at Detroit Avenue. The tour lets people see the path of the streetcar: from the subway underground, to the bridge that brought the trolley across the Cuyahoga River, to another tunnel that brought passengers into downtown Cleveland. This route operated from 1917 to 1954.

Sotu says being in the tunnel now reminds her of trips downtown with her mother.

“When you see the generations that are in the crowd, it is nice to know that we’re passing down history instead of destroying it,” she said.

Two kids, Viviane and Lucas, are exploring the history of the subway on a tour with their dad. They’re enjoying the unique views from the bridge. On the north side, the lake is visible. On the south side, there’s the city’s skyline and the current rail transportation, the Rapid Transit Line.  

“I like the view. It’s pretty and it’s calming,” 9-year-old Viviane said.

Director of Public Works Michael Dever says they’ve made improvements like building ramps for wheelchairs so more people can access the tour.

“Some people never even knew that this was here,” Dever said. “So what I hope they get out of this is they get a picture of what it looked like in the past.”

Dever says the Department of Public Works hasn’t opened the subway tour to the public for four years because they’ve been repairing the bridge. This was a one-time tour, but Dever says he hopes they can open the space to the public more in the future. The interest is definitely there. This year, they had more than 13,000 people tour the bridge and subway. Dever says the space could possibly be incorporated into the Ohio-Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

“I doubt it that we’ll ever really put trains back under here again. It would be great if they did,” Dever said. “If anything this might be a logical place to open up, it could be an extension of the Towpath in the near future.”

But railroad historian Mark Adamcik says he would like to see the past become the future, with the return of the electric streetcar.

“This has to be preserved as a transportation asset. Converting it for other purposes is not, in my opinion, a proper thing to do,” Adamcik said.

Adamcik is on the board of the Northern Ohio Railway Museum, and he says cities need to reinvest in what he sees as a clean and efficient mode of transportation.

“The crowd that we have here today is indicative of the interest in the transportation history of the city of Cleveland.”

Although not everyone agrees on what to do with the tunnel, residents like Rita Sotu say they are just happy to see a renewed interest in downtown and the surrounding infrastructure.

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