Explore Cincinnati: Queen City Underground Tour

Email:  friend or foe?  My answer depends on when you ask me.  One moment, I might be praising it for how much I can accomplish in a few short minutes, and the next, I’ll be cursing it as I count the 100 new emails that just invaded my inbox.  C’est la vie in the twenty-first century, I suppose.  Most days, I attempt to manage my active inbox by deleting almost every targeted email in one fell swoop without opening it.  There are only so many sales and coupons one lady needs, right?  On one weekday this spring, however, I strayed from my norm and opened one of  many Groupon emails to check out an offer for the Queen City Underground Tour in Cincinnati.  Intrigued by the description, I purchased two tickets and made a reservation to visit Over-the-Rhine that very weekend.

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Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, Over-the-Rhine and its more than 900 buildings are said to form one of the largest, most intact historic districts in the United States.  Mostly built by nineteenth-century German immigrants, OTR gained its name because workers who crossed the Miami and Erie Canal on the way to work in Cincinnati proper were reminded of traveling over the Rhine River in Germany.  The area began to decline when residents moved to the suburbs in the early-to-mid twentieth century.  By 2001, it had one of the worst crime rates in the U.S. and was ground zero for the Cincinnati riots.  Seeing the immense potential in the area, developers, artists, and historic preservation advocates came together after the riots ended to drastically reduce the crime rate and fill the area with great restaurants, unique housing, and in true German fashion — beer halls.

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IMG_2552We met our tour group at the American Legacy Tours office in the middle of OTR.  Since we arrived a little early, we headed next door to check out Holtman’s Donuts, a staple since 1960.  The shop was packed full of people enjoying fresh-baked donuts and coffee on a chilly spring morning.  My jelly donut was still warm and a perfect staIMG_2542rt to our OTR day.  Our tour began right on time with a walk down the street to hear a tale about Annie Oakley and a sharp-shooting act, followed by stories about Cincinnati and government officials long since passed who weren’t completely on the straight and narrow.  As a long-time supporter of historic preservation efforts, I really enjoyed seeing buildings along the way that were each in different states of (dis)repair.  Some have been completely rehabbed and modernized and others still need a lot of TLC, but regardless, each building has its own unique beauty.

IMG_2570As we walked up to one particularly decrepit looking door, I was excited to learn that the first “underground” part of our tour was a venture into a former tenement house that had just started its rehab process.  Our guide explained that the building would’ve been full of multiple families when it was built at the turn of the nineteenth century.  She pointed out the remaining beauty of its iron railings and interior courtyard in a way that helped me imagine what it must have felt like when it was still shiny and new.  Bringing us back to reality, she demonstrated just how far that OTR has come in the last decade by telling us that the previously abandoned building was home to an illegal dog-fighting ring in the 2000s before a preservation non-profit and the local government worked to end the fighting and save it from being demolished.  As chilly as it may have felt to be standing in a place where animals had been forced to fight, it warmed me up to know that the community came together to help the dogs and turn the building back into something good.

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IMG_2608St. Francis Seraph Church on Liberty Street was next on our tour.  Established in 1859, St. Francis stands on the former site of “Christ Church,” the first Catholic church in Cincinnati.  The crypt and cemetery from Christ Church had to be relocated under the new building when St. Francis was built, and the crypt was the site of our first truly underground stop on the tour.  We ventured down beneath the church to see the ornate gravestones of members who worshiped there more than a century ago, and then we climbed up to the sanctuary to learn about how the building had grown and changed over the years.

IMG_2615Our last stop of the day was easily my favorite.  From the basement of a rehabbed apartment building, we traveled down a narrow set of stairs into a small hole beneath the street.  Never would I have imagined the huge caverns I’d see at the bottom of the steps!  In its heyday, OTR was filled with some of the most popular breweries in the United States.  Since they didn’t have refrigeration capabilities at that time, breweries built huge underground caverns that stayed a perfectly crisp temperature for brewing and year-round beer storage.  Sadly, prohibition hit the OTR breweries hard, and all of their caverns were sealed off when alcohol was outlawed in 1919.  As part of the recent OTR renaissance, brewery buildings are being rehabbed into unique living spaces and businesses. The owner of the apartment building we visited (an architect) had no idea that there might be a structure underneath the basement when he purchased it.  One evening sometime later, he noticed markings on the blueprints that usually indicate something beneath the floor.  A six-pack of beer and a jackhammer later, he discovered the underground beer caverns.

IMG_2641No tour of OTR and its beer caverns would be complete without a cold draft to end the trip.  Christian Moerlein Brewing Company began in 1853, and when it closed its doors in 1919 due to prohibition, it was among the ten largest American breweries by volume.  Today, it features many historically-Cincinnati beers and a frankfurtery selling German sausages and pretzels to go along with a stein or two.  Plus, they have a pig wearing lederhosen.  My favorite part (next to the beer, of course) was that the arched ceilings of the brewery looked just like the ceilings I saw in a winery I visited in the Rhine Valley in Germany a few years ago.  Pretty neat to see two places separated by thousands of miles of land and sea united by the same traditions!

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The photo on the left above was taken in a winery in St. Goar, Germany.  The photo on the right was taken in Christian Moerlein Brewing in Over-the-Rhine.

Overall, I would highly recommend visiting Over-the-Rhine with American Legacy Tours, which began as a volunteer effort and has now grown into the highest rated tour company in Cincinnati.  Considering the enthusiasm and knowledge that our guides showed us, it’s easy to see why.  They have many other tours in the area, including brewery tours, haunted tours, Reds tours, and gangster tours, and I’m definitely planning to go back and check them out.  If you’re looking for something to do on a sunny weekend, I suggest you do the same!

Copyright © 2015 – Amelia Adams