“Smuggling has been one of the most common economic activities of all time, yet it is all but absent from the historical record.”
-Freeman’s Perspective, ( www.freemansperspective.com)
Repeatedly, we have house after house in Newburyport with tunnel entrances. They are not cisterns which tend to be in the backyards of the older homes and are accessed by a trap door.
These tunnel doorways are found mostly bricked in.
But one thing that is glaringly clear is the absence of any historical record of their existence until the late 19th century.
Most were built during the Federalist (or Jeffersonian) period. This is true because the size of a brick is very much smaller if it came from this period. Walk down Newburyport’s downtown and take a moment to look at the bricks on the side of the buildings. Bricks made later during the early Victorian period are typical modern brick size. This alone identifies their construction during a time when Newburyport was very much in distress. (1807-1825) For example, we know that the tunnel that connects Bartlett Mall’s frog pond with the Merrimack River is constructed using typical brick size. And indeed it was built in 1839. Therefore, it was never used during the earlier time and is strictly a drainage system.
The time period between the supposed construction of the tunnels to the first mention of its romantic connection with the Underground Railroad is a span of 50 to 75 years of complete silence.
The answer can only come from one word: smuggling.
As an emminent scholar Dr Evan Jones, University of Bristol, on the subject noted, most of the historical records on smuggling are based on” the activities of those dumb enough to get caught’
And the merchants of Newburyport were hardened, Yankee-spirited businessmen. According to Peter Andreas, in his book, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America; early America was built on it. We can see it by noting famous smugglers such as John Hancock in Boston or John Brown in Rhode Island. The Founding Fathers with the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin knew they were rubbing shoulders with other distinquished individuals who made their fortunes from smuggling.
Most smuggling occurred as ‘slight of hand’. A ship’s cargo coming into port for the 19th century and earlier was largely unknown. A ship would be partially unloaded off-port or would slip quietly into an obscure wharf for partial unloading. The ship’s manifest altered accordingly and then the vessel would proceed to the customs house for reporting. Most customs agents were short-staffed, and there were corrupt “pilots” who would be complicit in guiding the ship into an obscure wharf. As much as a third of the cargo would then be smuggled duty free and transported to waiting eager markets.
Of course, there was also present full-blown smuggling when entire cargoes would be sailed into places like Great Neck in Ipswich. Revenue Ships were built for the specific reason of interdicting such traffic. The trouble with smuggled goods: it looks identical to the taxed goods once it gains ashore so intercepting was of prime importance.
Most smuggling amongst merchants was done on a gentleman’s unwritten agreement. Never mentioned with no paper trail and no testimony.
One of the reasons that Newburyport celebrates itself as the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard was the launch of the R.C.S. Massachusetts in 1790 to interdict the smugglers that were especially flagrant around Newburyport.
And that was in the ‘good times’.
After the Embargo of 1807 (Repealed in 1809), the Great Fire of 1811 and the War of 1812 (which actually lasted into 1816) the city fell into bad times. It actually reduced in population. Now considering that Newburyport was the fifith most imporant port in the new United States of America and its merchants were fabulously wealthy – the key was not how did they manage to build a tunnel system that spanned the huge distance from the water to the cemetery without anyone knowing about it; to how did they keep it so secret for so long?
It is interesting to note that underground entrances were present at the Garrison Inn (formerly Brown’s Mansion) and William Bartlett’s mansion. Mr. Bartlett also owned the house where the Moose Lodge would be later held which also has a tunnel entrance.
This doesn’t mean there actually is an extensive tunnel system present in Newburyport. Only that the Act of Smuggling is maybe one of the reasons that the tunnels have been mysteriously absent from historical records.
I will report more information as it comes available.
PS. Yes, smugglers have even been glorified in fiction in 19th century writings. Even in Science Fiction! Hans Solo anyone? Or “Starlord” in the Guardians of the Universe.