Tunnel Tracking

We are getting closer – but some of the newest revelation has been so striking that I thought it would be best to wait until it was winter.     That way, the weather would discourage any snooping around initially by any Indiana Jones taking the cavalier way.

In my previous post, Sharing the Adventure – Tunnels under Newburyport; I indicated that the downtown tunnel not only ran parallel to State Street but continued under High Street, and ended up in the Oak Hill Cemetery.       

We know that the tunnel near State Street has been readily tracked.      The tunnel lies directly under 102-104 High Street and continues directly under Otis Place which lies North of the house.

We know from accounts by Chip Davis of Salisbury, that the tunnel was revealed and partially explored when the downtown was being restored and the Sullivan Building was under construction.     That structure lies directly north of the most northern edge of Otis Place.       We also know that the same tunnel was broken into accidentally on Water Street. (location unknown)

Tunnel DirectionWe also know that the city’s original custom house was no where near where the Robert Mills U.S. Custom House is presently located. (It was located closer to Sommersby’s Landing. presently in the possession of the Waterfront Trust)       How smuggling was done in those days was based largely on an economy of scale.       A ship typically with unknown cargo would glide into the port and dock on one of the lesser-known wharves.    As much as a third of the ship’s hold would be off-loaded into the tunnels.   Maid Hill Cemetery   To avoid suspicion, as much as two-thirds of the hold would remain to proceed to customs with a reduced manifest to be subject to taxing, leaving the merchant to make a tremendous profit on what was not included.      This ‘missing’ material would be hauled up the tunnels to an exit point where it could safely be unloaded and hauled off to market.

It is my theory (presently unsubstantiated) that the Federal building was put where it was in 1835 at the water’s side of the State Street tunnel to serve as a warning that the party is over and that efforts would be redoubled to stop the rampant smuggling that occurred from 1807 to approximately 1825.

If you carefully look at the topography, the tunnel rides along a narrow plateau that presently Maid Hill Cemetery - Predecessor of Oak Hillincludes a line of houses to the east of State Street, this narrows to a strip of land that runs from the old Newbury Town hall down the entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery.      We now know that Maid Hill Cemetery was composed of only seventy memorial stones and laid relatively close to State Street.     My wife and I took a copy of the list from the archive room and located most of them – they are exactly due south of the Tappan Gate.       

You can clearly see that the original Oak Hill Cemetery now renamed in 1842 and slightly enlarged with land from the Brown Estate still hugged close to State Street.     It could not go south since the land falls away steeply down to the pond.

So why are the mausoleums so far down from the top of the hill?      It literally drops steeply beyond the pathway before their entrances.      You can clearly see this from the topographical map.     It also reveals that the location of the ridge clearly restricts where the tunnel could lie.      It could not go east of the Tappan Gate because there is a depression where Brown Street (now a dead end) lies.      Behind the High Street ridge lies a low-lying marshy area which is due east of State Street.

Topographical Map of Area

The question would be, with a tunnel like that – where is its egress and if you were transporting smuggled goods – where would be the best place for this exit to be located?

It just so happens that just beyond the tombstones, the land very steeply descends all the way to the pond below.        We travelled down a little ways and located three remote mausoleum entrances in the side of the hill.       The left and the right have names to them – the center one is completely walled up and has no sign of any identification on it. (Even if it did, it would be highly suspect.)

Maid Hill Mausoleums

There is a small path directly in front of these entrances which leads to the street.       We also know that a very thick grove of woods surrounded the cemetery at that time.         

It stands to reason that this is most likely the exit point. (lacking definitive proof).        It faces due south, is close to the Newburyport Turnpike that was built in just the right time period (1802-1805) which had direct access to Boston. (Route 1 used to be State Street and continue down to Market Square)      The site in the cemetery was relatively remote and well-hidden.      

It would be easy to unload the goods onto a wagon, far from the eyes of the custom agents, and not even within the jurisdiction of Newburyport (at that time this cemetery and land was in Newbury) and ship the goods directly to market without peering eyes and wagging tongues in town.

This location corresponds to the scant statements made by 19th century writers of a tunnel opening up in a cemetery and being used for access to the waterside and for smuggling.

-P. Preservationist

This entry was posted in Archeology, Education, Environment, History. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tunnel Tracking

  1. Thank you for posting this. I have always been intrigued with the history of Newburyport’s tunnels.
    If they were restored just think of what could be done for tourism and developing an interest in the rich history of Newburyport. Have you ever heard the stories of tunnels underneath homes of the high street mansions?

  2. Ari Herzog says:

    A friend of mine lives at 104 High Street; and I’ve briefly explored the sub-basement. There’s not much to see but a very dark cavern. That was probably part of your tunnel once upon a time.

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