Ranked among the top five underground tours in the country by National Geographic, American Legacy’s Queen City Underground tour combines fun, history and fascinating, seldom-seen sights around downtown Cincinnati. Convenient parking at the corner of Vine is just steps from Cincy Haus Tour and Store, the starting point for our adventure.
Despite its name, the Underground Tour mostly takes place above ground in the heart of Over the Rhine (OTR). Our knowledgeable and comedic guides began with the origin of the neighborhood’s name, a reference to the high concentration of German immigrants there, and a mock comparison of Germany’s Rhine River to the former Central Parkway Canal. Since the canal’s demise, a series of political, industrial and social events have turned OTR into the country’s largest, most intact urban historic district with the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States.
In addition to their apparent love of Italianate buildings, the Germans who settled in Cincinnati liked classical music, and their love of German composers led to the establishment of the choral May Festival and contributed to the construction of Music Hall, then the largest concert hall in the U.S.
All this talk of song somehow led to a street performance of the chicken dance, which provided a neat segue to historic OTR’s less highbrow entertainments. Our guides pointed out a pizza place that was once a theater. It used to present Wild West shows, and was the very place that Frank Butler lost a shooting match to his future celebrated wife, Annie Oakley. The guides also told of a less successful shooting team whose lives came to murderous ends.
Our sense of intrigue and adventure whetted, we next went inside an abandoned tenement building. We wound through narrow hallways, dark passages, and cramped rooms once shared with extended families — without the benefit of indoor plumbing. Residents had to use chamber pots, and visit bathhouses where customers paid extra for fresh water. However, they did have use of the lovely courtyard. Once enclosed inside it, we marveled at the building’s tremendous potential with its series of open-air balconies and beautiful iron scrollwork.
We visited an even more pleasant courtyard during our visit to St. Francis Seraph. Amid flowers and fountains our guides spoke over the sound of fire trucks, ambulances, honking horns and a motorcycle brigade to tell stories of the Irish immigrants who buried their dead in the church crypt. Following those tales, we finally went underground, to the crypt through locked doors, and narrow stairwells into a spooky place where the tiles in the floor clanked with each step and headstones lined the walls.
Still more fascinating was our last stop, the brewery tunnels of the Guildhaus, found one day when the current owner happened to notice a sub-basement on the blueprints. Curious, he took a jackhammer to the floor and discovered a maze of tunnels. We inched down the stairs — steep, turning, uneven and without railings — to the bottom, where boards blocked pits, and caution tape stretched across large areas. The adventurous stairwell opened into a fascinating space of enormous archways and tiny ones too, all part of an extinct brewery. Apparently, Cincinnatians once brewed and consumed beer with a passion, without much need to import or export. Not surprisingly, Prohibition harmed the business, but even after the law’s repeal, Cincinnati’s breweries failed to return. During Prohibition’s 14 years, German Americans moved out, people stopped drinking beer throughout the day, or rather, what they did drink came from national breweries. However, our tour guides noted that Over the Rhine is renewing the Brewery District, craft beers are gaining popularity, and parents and visitors 21 and older were welcome to get a taste of the trend at the bar at the end of the tour.