Sharing the Adventure–Tunnels under Newburyport

Stories about the tunnels remind me of a bunch of boy scouts sitting around the fire recounting tales with one boy trying to out do the last story.      First we hear of a tunnel, then three tunnels and the last I detected on the Internet had us at 7 tunnels!     With each telling comes the connection with slaves packed into them like sardines for the ‘underground’ railroad.        It gets more involved in each telling almost outdoing the wild stories told about Hell’s Gate at Maudsley State Park. (All totally unsubstantiated)

Most of the information that we have about the tunnels is derived from very obscure allusions in reference sources and from accidental discoveries that were made when the downtown was in the possession of the NRA.         It was this scant evidence that I outlined in a previous post.

I have been pre-occupied with many different issues in Newburyport but I haven’t let this topic go,  I feel it is more productive to try to locate the general direction of these tunnels. – the ultimate goal when enough information is revealed is to have ground-penetrating radar confirm their location and size.   This is a very expensive proposition and to do it willy-nilly over the entire Newburyport Historic District is ridiculous.       Look at the expense that occurred over Coombs Wharf!      And documentation and maps had it well-established as to its general location.

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks has been a terrible reluctance from property owners to allow publication of these locations.     As I track down details and share them with you the readers, then perhaps property owners (or their family and friends) will come forth with new information.

But people need to know what they are seeking.      The large cisterns under many of the Federal and Georgian mansions are not tunnels.     The ancient fire-protection system that ran from Bartlett Mall to the water (The entrance traces can still be seen down by the Frog Pond across from the Catholic Church Rectory) that was installed in 1839 is not the kind of1839 'pipe' tunnel we are seeking either.  (See picture)  And any statements provided by people in the past need to be substantiated with some basic facts. (If not first-hand accounts – where did they get their information?)

The earlier the better.   I located a tourist document from 1847 (available on Google Books) that promoted Essex County sites claiming the Newburyport tunnels were built by merchants so they could get to the ships without having to cross the muddy streets.    In those days, no one knew exactly what was being brought in so it was important for the merchant to arrive first to obtain the best pickings! Therefore some tunnels must have been common knowledge at that time.

It was also revealed at the famous Sham Trial in 1816-1818 conducted by Daniel Webster that the reason the accused picked some Newburyport citizens to blame was due to the reputation of the city of being filled with smugglers along with smuggler tunnels.

But we need hard facts.     Due to the real smuggler tunnel on Green Street being confused with the fire-protection drain and the lack of evidence; if any research is to be made, it should focus on a particular well-publicized tunnel. This is the one that was stumbled upon when the Sullivan Building was constructed. It is also too far away from State Street to be simply drainage.     By drawing a simple line on the map from where it was exposed, the Custom House seems to have been built(1835) near its egress by the river. (To send a stern message? Why was the Custom House built ‘there’?)        According to an out-of-print tour guide, Dooryard and Shipyard, four walking tours of Newburyport, by Candice Chapman Erickson, the State Street tunnel leads out across High Street and has an entrance at the Oak Hill Cemetery.     What better way to get smuggled goods out of the city than to have an entrance where the neighbors can’t report you!

But we have a little problem.      Oak Hill Cemetery didn’t come into existence until 1842!    And most of the smuggling occurred from 1780 to 1825.    Obviously another ‘boy scout’ exaggeration!     Or, so I thought.

Recently, I went to the Newburyport Library archive room and started doing some research on the Old Hill Burying Ground. (Doing a video via PortMedia – unrelated to the tunnels.)         I glanced at one reference book and it stated that a cemetery existed Oak Hill's Original Extentpreviously before Oak Hill…and there were only twenty tombstones* in it dating from 1797 to 1840 and it was called Maid Hill Cemetery and was surrounded by a forest. (Perfect obscurity for smuggling)  It was also near the main road to Boston.    Only later were 4 acres added that had been purchased from the Moses Brown estate. (And much later in 1894, the rest of the property was extended to Parker Street)

Now before people start freaking out and disturbing the site; keep in mind there are severe penalties including jail time for those who would disturb cemetery sites!     It is more important to locate the general direction of the tunnel by examining maps.

In my next post, I will show the general diagrams as to the possible location of the run to the sea and to the cemetery.      The key is in the topography!

-P. Preservationist

PS.  Tunnel picture above is scanned from an old article in the Newburyport Daily News.

* I know the twenty names and dates – and have already located them in the cemetery. More later.

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4 Responses to Sharing the Adventure–Tunnels under Newburyport

  1. John Harwood says:

    Working on a Newburyport Magazine article about the tunnels for the fall issue. Would love to get together.

    • indyjerry77 says:

      Just read the Newburyport Magazine – excellent article !!!!

    • Salem House Press says:

      Hello John,
      I am looking to write a book about the tunnels in Newburyport; I have written already Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City and Sub Rosa about the ones in Salem. Could we get together and talk about the tunnels in Newburyport? You can reach me through the Salem House Press website.
      Chris Dowgin

  2. Chris Dowgin says:

    I have two books documenting the tunnels in Salem and those who were involved. Daniel Webster was quite active in Salem as well with is associates Associate Superior Court Justice Joseph Story and his brother-in-law Stephen White who was head of the MA National Republican Party which would devolve into the Whigs which Webster would run as a presidential candidate. Daniel Webster with John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay would visit Joseph Bonaparte in Bordentown NJ and walk through his tunnels starting in the garden that inspired Central Park that led back to his mansion Point Breeze.

    The picture above looks like the tunnels exiting the fireplace arches in homes built by the architects Bulfinch, McIntire, Roberts, and Lord in Salem. George Peabody who constructed the Eastern Railroad which was connected to an underground train station in the Kinsman building on Washington Street would have a shop in Newburyport with his brother up to he 1811 Fire. Peabody would later do business in Georgetown D.C. and Baltimore which had utilized smuggling tunnels as well. I might assume he used the tunnels in Newburyport as well.

    A way beyond topography to find tunnels in your city is to look for homes with four exterior tunnels. The placement of these chimneys were not energy efficient which point to an alternative reason for their placement. Charles Bulfinch employed these chimneys in his design to connect the tunnels to the interior of the homes through the fireplace arches to alleviate any flashing problem when you abutted the tunnel to the outside of the home. It also created a draw system sucking air up the flue every time you opened the door from the house to the tunnel from openings various opening to the ground in the tunnel. Another way to find tunnels is to walk in front of buildings during a light dusting, the heat escaping from the basement through the tunnel will melt a semicircle of snow on the sidewalk. A method employed in Salem to hide the purchase of excessive bricks in building homes that went to build the tunnels was to build two large brick mansions next to each other at fixed distances throughout town.

    Topography is a means to find them. The yard behind the Custom House in Salem is humped in an are where the ground has settled around it. Also the road leading to Cabot Farm on Orne’s Point is badly humped and terminates in a marshy field where the only high ground is a Y shaped path that leads to the two homes. Also there are several humps in the bricks on the pedestrian walkway giving away several locations where the tunnels connect to the basements of the old stores and banks.

    Glass in the sidewalk tends to appear at entrances in the tunnels to buildings. In Salem, Beverly, and Gloucester you can see two grate like manhole covers with rectangle chambers below. These were cut aways where one group of carts could pull aside and let another group of carts pass.

    I would question the drainage tunnels. In Salem our Common had hills leveled, ground graded, 5 ponds, and a river filled to hide the construction of tunnels running around and through them. A grand project with 159 subscribers. The drainage project could of been a similar ruse.

    Are any tunnels in Newburyport accessible?

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