Apparently, Jay Williamson, the Curator of the Cushing Museum has become the official apologist for our underground tunnels. To him, they are storm drains. (He may be right) His latest theory is some kind of fire-fighting method by feeding water from the Frog Pond into this network for ready access. (He may be right).
Now in contrast, the mythology and anecdotal writings of locals over the years hold that these tunnels were smuggling tunnels. (They may be right) Some have even conjectured that runaway slaves from the Underground Railroad travelled through them. (Highly unlikely but again a possibility – often romantically but mistakenly attributed to by the close correlation of ‘tunnel’ and ‘underground’) Yet, two tunnels were claimed to open up into the Oak Hill Cemetery and the Old Hill Cemetery – for slaves or for smuggling? Hardly for water. Some writers in the past spoke of tunnels used by the wealthy merchants simply to get to their places of business rather than deal with the rabble and the mud-covered streets. (A possibility)
Complicating the fact are large massive cisterns built around some of the Federal and High Georgian Mansions – as water supplies and as a handy resource in case of fire. Many of them are mistakenly referred to as ‘tunnels’.
The truth is that facts, history, legends and theories are going to have equal footing until someone steps forth and does a scientific attempt to map and get at these tunnels. (Can someone say, “ground-penetrating radar”?)
In the meantime, there are conflicting aspects of these underground mysteries that have to be dealt with:
1. If they were built for a handy water supply why do they not have crude hydrants for access or follow closely by the street? Why are large (a man can stand fully upright) entrances in the basements of the mansions rather than in an open field for easy access?
2. Why is there no historical record of this undertaking in town records or, in historical archives? The Curator says such a large undertaking would have not gone un-noticed. Perhaps, but Newburyport was at the time, the fifth wealthiest city in America. It is amazing what you can get away with if you have a large sum of money. Today, how is it that a certain downtown business owner is allowed to have a building next to the Artichoke Reservoir when no one else is permitted to be that close to our drinking supply?
3. When were they built? This one is actually an easy one to discover by looking at the type of brick that was used. Jeffersonian brick is more misshapen and would have been used prior to 1805. Federalist bricks that we see around town were of a particular shape, and much later, as the industrial age dawned, bricks would have been again, of a different grade and more consistent size. Newburyport was known as a smugglers center before, during and after the Great Fire. The Embargo Act of 1807 showed the devastating affect of rotting ships on the wharfs and empty warehouses. Historically, a select group of merchants actually did alright during the tough period of 1807 to 1815. I can only conjecture why.
If the tunnels were built prior to 1811, then the brick style would give their purpose away. If the bricks were more of what we see downtown which was post-1811; then the storm drain theory would gain affirmation.
Right now, all we can do is pinpoint the location and direction of the tunnels and which homes historically had entrances into them. I think that thorough detective work will eventually bring forth the truth behind them.
Oh, that we had a courageous homeowner who, having a tunnel entrance in their basement, would come forth and volunteer to have archeologists do a scientific study.