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 of 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 previously 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!
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.