Original Fort Washington Way

Ft. Washington Way carries I-71, U.S. 50, and provides access to downtown and the riverfront from I-75 and I-71. It was originally built between 1958 and 1961 and was reconstructed between 1998 and 2000.  The reconstruction was complete -- today no ramp, retaining wall, or sign post remains from the original expressway, and with the implosion of Riverfront Stadium in 2002, its environs have changed considerably as well.  The reconstructed Ft. Washington Way is the newest expressway in the Cincinnati area and is a major component of the city's ambitious riverfront development scheme.  Click Here for the Ft. Washington Way reconstruction article.

Ft. Washington Way was dubbed the "3rd St. Distributor" in the 1947 Expressways Master Plan, but was renamed during construction when the remains of Ft. Washington (1789) were unearthed near the Broadway overpass.  The major elements of the expressway were, from east to west: the 3rd St. Viaduct, the I-71 Lytle Tunnel interchange, the "mainline trench", and the I-75/6th St. Expressway  interchange. Construction began soon after the Interstate Highway Act was passed in 1956, and the 3rd St. Viaduct opened in 1959, followed by the mainline trench in 1960.  The Brent Spence Bridge and I-75 interchange opened in 1963, and the 6th St. Expressway (U.S. 50) opened in 1964.  The Lytle Tunnel and the I-71 interchange opened in 1970.  The limited I-471 connections from the 3rd St. Viaduct opened in 1977.

I-71's approach to the Lytle Tunnel now occupies this area. 

The red brick building in this November 2004 photograph is visible in the above post card,
meaning the historical marker was located somewhere on the right half of this image. 

The 3rd St. Distributor, from the time of its conception, was seen as part of the complete redevelopment of the city's obsolete industrial riverfront.   No proposals for redeveloping the area's buildings or maintaining the traditional street grid were entertained.  All was to be demolished and replaced with a combination of stadia, parks, parking, municipal buildings, and apartment towers.  This approach to redevelopment was popular at the time; St. Louis' expressway layout and riverfront clearance mirror Cincinnati's almost exactly.

In the 1939 conceptual drawing below the Distributor is seen as the ultimate destination of both a widened Linn St. and Columbia Parkway:

In this drawing we also see an extension of the C&O Bridge's vehicular approach to the foot of Plum St., skirting the large warehouse that was demolished in 1998 to make way for the Cincinnati Bengals' practice fields.  To the east, a shorter viaduct connects the Central Bridge to the base of Broadway.  A new street atop a levee parallels the Distributor in a similar fashion to the Levee Way that opened in 1960 and was removed in 2000.  The Distributor continues at ground level to its eastern connection with Columbia Parkway without a viaduct, descending into the flood plain.  In the distance, we see the widened Linn St. connected to a similarly widened 8th St. Viaduct approach.  Linn St. was in fact widened along with Liberty St., Ezzard Charles Drive (formerly Lincoln Ave.), and 8th St., contemporary with I-75's construction.  The entire West End (the thousands of mid-1800's row houses pictured to the left of the business district) was demolished and replaced with public housing blocks, light industry, and I-75 after WWII.

An expressway and riverfront redevelopment graphic published in 1948. 
Click Here for a larger version of this graphic.

The 1948 plan, shown above, is closer to what was actually built in many respects as compared to the 1939 proposal.  Here the Distributor is seen as the connector for the newly proposed Millcreek Expressway, as opposed to a widened Linn St., and the proposed Northeast expressway  as compared to simply Columbia Parkway.  Interestingly, a Lytle Park Tunnel is shown more or less precisely where it was built twenty years later, but the orientation of its northern portal is not shown and confused by a proposed Pike St. bridge to replace the then 60 year-old Central Bridge (The Central Bridge survived 102 years until its demolition in 1992).   As built, the Lytle Tunnel's northern approach severed Pike St., and it is today among downtown's most obscure streets.  If a bridge had been built there, it is reasonable to assume that the park's tunnel would have been extended so that Pike could reach as far north as 5th St.  As in the 1939 drawing, no new Covington bridge is foreseen, and the C&O is awkwardly incorporated via a narrow elevated viaduct.  It goes without saying that the the proposed stadium, heliport, civic buildings, and apartments were drawn with little serious thought. 

A close-up of the proposed Lytle Park Tunnel and Pike St. Bridge.

Fort Washington Way under construction 1957 or 1958.
The old Central Bridge's approach can be seen at bottom left, forming
a 5-way intersection with Broadway and the original 2nd St.

As built, the Distributor differed significantly from either of the two above proposals.  Having learned from the instant failures of Boston's Central Artery (recently demolished in 2004 and replaced by the $12 Billion Central Artery Tunnel) and the handful of recently opened New York City expressways, Cincinnati's 3rd St. Distributor included breakdown lanes and merge lanes considered adequate for the time.  But the trench's six through lanes kinked slightly out of parallel with the street grid, and like Boston's Central Artery, far too many entrance and exit ramps made for stressful conditions.  In fact, after the opening of the Lytle Tunnel in 1970, Fort Washington Way's 23 entrance and exit ramps (including six left-side ramps) in the span of one mile were the most of any expressway in the country.  Cars frequently backed up from the short exit ramps onto the through lanes, and those on entrance ramps often stopped at the bottom and then waited for a minute or more for an adequate gap. 

Site of Fort Washington Way prior to major construction. 
The 5th St. Viaduct is at bottom right.

In all planning, the Distributor's trench was to be built parallel to the city's east/west streets and would require full demolition of nine city blocks (pictured above).  As built, six through lanes, entrance and exit ramps, and a flood levee occupied an entire city block width and nine block length. These city blocks were comprised mostly of typical commercial buildings dating from the late 1800's and early 1900's, and few were of notable architectural quality because they were situated on the flood plain. By the 1950's, many had already been demolished and the land served as parking lots for the central business district. 

As opposed to the below grade routing, an elevated expressway in this location was also studied.  An elevated roadway would have allowed parking beneath and an easier connection with the Brent Spence Bridge but was rejected primarily because of its greater cost.

This post card illustrates Cincinnati's congested riverfront in the early 1900's.  This area flooded regularly.  

A roadway called "Levee Way" ran on top of the expressway's earth berm at the same altitude as 3rd St. and served as a distributor between the expressway's exit ramps and 2nd St. (renamed Pete Rose Way in 1985).  The Roebling Suspension Bridge was reached via Levee Way, and the Dixie Terminal bus ramps crossed the expressway, in line with the bridge, via two independent single lane overpasses.  A gap in the levee, to allow for an eastbound exit to 2nd St. (Pete Rose Way), was protected by a flood gate that was closed, along with the exit, during high water.

The original Ft. Washington Way, circa 1991.    [Larry Stulz photo]

Another early 1990's view   [Larry Stulz  photo]

This aerial view of the 1997 flood illustrates the original Ft. Washington Way
flood levee in action.  [Cincinnati Enquirer Photo]

Two more overpasses were built concurrent with the opening of Riverfront Stadium in 1970.  These two bridges connected the stadium plaza with north/south alleyways that bisected their respective city blocks.  The overpasses touched down halfway between 3rd & 4th St. where east/west alleys further divided their blocks into quadrants.  The bridges were built at the stadium's plaza height and permitted taxis and pedestrians to reach the stadium directly from downtown.  The eastern bridge was modified in 1980 with the construction of the Atrium 1 building, which blocked the alleyway but connected directly with the new building's lobby.  A partial roof was added to this bridge in the mid-1980's, and large panels illustrating moments in Cincinnati Reds history were added later in the decade.  This bridge was shared by pedestrians and taxi cabs, and rowdy fans regularly slapped the hoods and windows of passing taxis.

The western bridge was modified in 1990 to allow for construction of the 30 floor 312 Walnut building, which was soon after renamed The Scripps Center.  Unlike the Atrium 1 complex, the block's alleyway was not severed and could still be used by pedestrians who knew of its existence, although most took stairs to the intersection of 3rd & Walnut.  With this modification taxi service stopped and a full roof was added soon after.  This roof turned the bridge into an echo chamber, adding natural reverb to the sounds of street musicians and heft to post-game chants.

Ft. Washington Way and the pedestrian ramps during summer 2000 reconstruction.
[Jake Mecklenborg August 2000]

The east pedestrian/taxi bridge -- the postgame surge of humanity often prevented taxis from
using the bridge.  The two bridges stood connecting nowhere to nowhere following Riverfront
Stadium's implosion in December 2002, and were not fully dismantled until the summer of 2003.
[Jake Mecklenborg Summer 1999]

This notch marks the spot where the east bridge crossed. 
It is among the only remaining vestiges of the original Ft. Washington Way.
[Jake Mecklenborg November 2004]

In the 1990's trees and unkempt foliage overgrew most of the grassy areas along the levee and north side of the expressway.  A small park of less than an acre, similar to the extant Firefighter memorial between Central Ave. and I-75, existed at the base of Elm St.  By the time reconstruction commenced in 1998, it had become completely overgrown and forgotten.

Ft. Washington Way and Riverfront Redevelopment

Model of Cincinnati created by the Cincinnati Department of Economic Development. 
Although the color coding is complex, generally the lighter colored buildings have either been constructed
or proposed since 1964, including some projects under construction in late 1982. 
Photograph (1982) by Michael Isaacs. 

The above photograph and caption were taken from Daniel Hurley's Cincinnati: The Queen City, published in 1982.  Along with the two from earlier in the century and the more recent ones below, it is obvious that redevelopment of Cincinnati's central riverfront has had no shortage of proposals or difficulty in sustainability.  The eastern riverfront was redeveloped in the 1970's and 1980's -- The Serpentine Wall, Yeatman's Cove park, and Bicentennial Commons have proven to be great assets.   Wheras the strip-like eastern riverfront was developed mostly with public funds and serves mostly as park land, the central riverfront is an immense area which has required much more money and time to develop.    

1999 redevelopment proposal for the central riverfront, showing the routing of Ft. Washington Way's many ramps.

Another graphic from 1999. 

What can be learned by viewing old proposals is that what is actually built and isn't is entirely unpredictable.   They are also frequently drawn by people who don't live in Cincinnati and don't have much familiarity with the place (the above 1999 graphic shows the old Central Bridge, which was dismantled in 1992).  In the recent graphics, Ft. Washington Way was indeed rebuilt as shown, but its covering lid has not.  Paul Brown Stadium at left and Great American Ballpark at right have been built, as has the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  The park at the base of the Suspension Bridge and surrounding apartment and commercial development have not, and will not until later in the decade.  The right-most proposed skyscraper is under construction, but will only reach about fifteen floors. 

1950's construction Photos

1998 photos prior to reconstruction

1999 construction photos

2000 construction Photos

Aerial Photos


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