J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tunnel Under Brattle Street?

On Sunday I was at the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge, and the question of tunnels surfaced. Apparently some visitors have asked about tunnels from the house either down to the Charles River, or under the Charles River to Boston. Supposedly Gen. George Washington made use of these tunnels while he lived in that house during the siege of Boston. It’s not clear. Then again, it’s not true.

The old tunnel story involving that house is that its first owner, John Vassall, commissioned a passage under what is now Brattle Street to his uncle Henry Vassall’s house nearby. This story was circulating in the mid-1800s. Isabella James, née Batchelder, who grew up in that other house across the road, wrote about it in Theatrum Majorum: The Cambridge of 1776, published in 1875:

A strong belief prevails in Cambridge that a subterranean passage connects this house with Mr. H. W. Longfellow’s, and that it was constructed to enable the two Vassall families to visit each other without exposure to the outside world. Many years ago the writer with her brothers and a brother of the Poet made a progress through the cellars in a vain search after this mysterious and mythical passage-way, one of the party only retaining a conviction that if a walled-up arch of solid masonry could be opened the entrance might be found.
The “brother of the Poet” could have been Samuel, Stephen, or Alexander Wadsworth (Waddy) Longfellow; I’ll have to check with the staff at the House to know which one is most likely.

Oliver Bronson Capen’s 1904 article “Country Homes of Famous Americans” in the magazine Country Life in America apparently alluded to that exploration:
There is a tradition, the origin of which is lost in obscurity, that a subterranean passage connects the houses. A generation or so ago the children of the neighborhood set about to discover this tunnel. Sentinels were posted in both cellars, but diligent knocking of the walls and the most vigorous efforts of youthful lungs failed to unravel the mystery.
Finally, Samuel F. Batchelder, who I think was Isabella James’s little brother, tried to put the story to rest in a 1914 article for the Cambridge Historical Society called “Col. Henry Vassall and His Wife Penelope Vassall with Some Account of His Slaves.” He wrote:
A tradition of delicious mystery connects the two houses by a secret underground passage. A bricked-up arch in Colonel Henry's cellar wall appears to be the foundation of both the tradition and that part of the building. We may assume, from what we know of the owner, that the feature was much more probably the entrance to a wine vault.

Although this primitive “subway” has caved in under the prodding of modern investigation, the touch of romance indispensable for a historic mansion was supplied, up to living memory, by an absolutely authentic secret recess closed by a sliding panel. Since the “secret” of its location—by the fireplace in one of the oldest rooms—was as usual public property, there was, naturally, nothing in it.
And yet the tunnel rumor lives on today, now even longer and attached to the name of Gen. Washington.


Larry Cebula said...

In every town I have lived in there were stories of tunnels connecting some of the prominent homes. We seem to have some need to believe in underground passages.

J. L. Bell said...

Could it be…Freudian?

Of course, some fine cities actually do have underground passages.

Tess said...

That's intriguing! The fact that the myth has been commonly accepted, and for so long, must pose a certain amount of credibility. I've heard of old salt boxes in central MA having tunnels in their root cellars. Evidently, back in the late 1600s, the passageways were used for emergency in case the Indians attacked. Depending on where the owners wished to surface, they could be very long, several yards absolutely. And one such tunnel was said to have gone from the cellar to a nearby river which was a short walking distance, across a small field from the house. This was back in the time of King Philip's War, so I guess it was not some rare occurance to have a tunnel beneath one's house.

J. L. Bell said...

The amount of effort required to dig and maintain such a tunnel in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mean that a homeowner would need a very strong reason to build one. A “short walking distance” on the surface is a long distance to dig by hand, requiring a major investment of time and other resources.

The supposed motivation for a tunnel in this part of Cambridge is that the two related families could visit without being seen. However, the Vassalls were living in a rural district, and almost all their neighbors were family members. Their familial and business interrelationships meant they had plenty of innocuous reasons to visit. There’s no reason for a tunnel to go along with no evidence for one.

I’m equally dubious about other tunnel rumors from the period unless there’s clear documentation or physical evidence for an excavation—not just a root cellar, but an underground passage that leads somewhere significant. Getting “several yards” from a house under attack, for instance, doesn’t seem like much protection. On the other hand, maintaining or expanding a root cellar that one would use every year—that seems practical.

Larry Cebula said...

Tess how many of these tunnels have you yourself been inside of, and how far did you go?

R Fuller said...

I'm in accord with J.L on this one. The effort involved in clearing, then running a 1600s farm in rocky-soiled New England was gargantuan. There were no time, nor spare people, nor energy left for such an endeavor as tunnels normally. Refuge from attacks usually meant running for the safety of the communal blockhouse and summoning the militia.

That, coupled with the relative ineffectiveness of iron tools such as spades and mattocks against granite stones and layers precludes much of the "ye olde fallout shelter" concept everybody from tour guides to real estate agents love to make the past more easily understandable (and saleable) to people of today.

And don't get me started on the "every old house in NE had a hiding place for slaves on the Underground Railroad" myth.... ;)

Charles Bahne said...

In the seaports, of course, the legends were that the tunnels were used for smuggling.