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.And yet the tunnel rumor lives on today, now even longer and attached to the name of Gen. Washington.
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.