Passed by a half a hundred times, this rather rundown ‘apartment complex’ is only notable by the double Palladium windows – in fact, I haven’t seen anything else in Newburyport quite like it.
Who knew this house was bursting forth with mystery, a mystery dealing with tunnels.
Funny that the Curator of the Historical Society is so keen to dismiss these underground passages and yet, according to old maps, this house was adjacent to the Cushing House. Maybe that’s why it inspires such a raw nerve. It also turns out that there is quite a bit of testimony over the years about the smuggling tunnels. (More later)
The basic synopsis is this: three tunnels run up Federal, Green and State. They join up into a main tunnel that cross-sections High Street (or, as to some accounts) runs directly under High Street. The testimonies all agree that the tunnels exit point is the ‘cemetery’. One account says Old Hill Cemetery but most concur that the main objective is Oak Hill Cemetery. I can just see Ghlee Woodworth having nightmares thinking of speculators scurrying about looking for the entrance! If you look at the terrain, this southern tunnel network could be running parallel to State or it could be running parallel to Pond Street. All that is known, it runs under this house and then on from there directly to Oak Hill.
Now according to Mr. Williamson, this was probably some public works project to get water into the downtown. Funny the parallel tunnels don’t run along the street but run under houses or behind houses. If the majority did not know they were there, how could you access them for water?
Either way – the tunnels aren’t the mystery. The mystery is, “Who built the tunnel under the house?”
Was it Samuel Tenny? He was the town Treasurer in 1811-1812; just when the great fire occurred – could he have influenced the great expenditure for ‘water delivery’? He certainly had motive since he was a member of the Merrimack Fire and Marine Insurance Company and was also the secretary of the Institution for Savings and he owned quite a few interests in ships going out of port. He would have the motive to want to see any future property saved by some kind of effective water delivery system. (Of course, he could also have gone broke from the Embargo and the Fire and was using the tunnels for smuggling. But he was very religious and it was doubtful he was into such things.)
Was it Moses Davenport? He was a prominent merchant and was part-owner of the Wolfe Tavern. He owned it in 1851 just when it was getting hot for runaway slaves and their aides along the Underground Railroad. He had the money and he had the connections but would an occasional slave justify building such a vast network unless something else was being sent along? Besides, a big risk when most of Newburyport was sympathetic to slavery.
Was it an unknown owner who had the property during the poverty-stricken years from 1811 to 1851. These were tough years and if they were used for smuggling, then it would be more than likely during this period.
More research is needed.
As for the tunnels, which landowner is bold enough to invite an historian in for a peek?