Hidden Tunnels Beneath Your Feet!

“Like most I was fascinated with the stories of the tunnels, but never realized they were under my nose or dreamed of the extent of them. Even after walking through a section of the tunnels my brain still pushed them into the category of myth. Maybe that is what is so fun about them, they fit a place in the world shrouded by myth and lore. [To enter into the tunnels is to enter] where captains orders sailors and smugglers alike to move mysterious cargo from the Orient through these chambers. A place where gold flowed freely [and a place] filled with rum and vice…You might bump into a man off to visit his mistress, a gentleman eluding complications that may arise from his presence in a brothel, a young man’s life…about to change for the worse as he is being led unconscious out to sea…In keeping a fascination for these tunnels you are keeping that miraculous place within you alive”

(“Salem Secret Underground“, Dowgin (2012) p. XL-XLI)

Local historian and Salem resident Chris Dowgin is on a mission to get the word out about a piece of Salem’s history almost exclusively overlooked by tourists, but steeped in myth and folklore from local residents: Salem’s underground smuggling tunnels.

I can’t remember where I first heard about the smuggling tunnels. But for this month’s theme, I did a quick Google search which pointed me to Dowgin’s website, and Facebook page, where he offers walking tours and tunnel basement tours several times a week. I was intrigued and decided to head down to the Derby Wharf to check out his walking tour.

The starting point of the Walking Tour.

In front of the Maritime Museum, I met Chris Dowgin. Originally from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, he then moved to the North Shore in 1992 to pursue illustration at Montserrat College in Beverly. He currently writes and illustrates children’s books, and even has his own publishing company. He told me he first heard of the tunnels from friends and acquaintances, but never took them too seriously, until he decided to write a short children’s book about these “mythical” underground tunnels, which caused him to dig deeper into their history. And he really knows his stuff. Searching through old 19th century Salem deeds and building projects from the Peabody Essex Museum, studying up on the complex dynamics between Salem’s most powerful and wealthy families, and interviewing long-time Salem residents, Dowgin carefully pieced together the facts to create what he believes is an accurate story of the smuggling tunnels.

Well known and well-connected in downtown Salem (during our tour, he would often pause to wave and greet a friend or acquaintance), Dowgin used these connections to gain access to places like basements and backyards where he was able to see what was leftover from the tunnels firsthand. He told me he has been through a few of the remaining intact tunnels as well (like the one between the Goddess’ Treasure Chest and Rockafellas) , but he speculates that there are many left to be discovered and explored.

Dowgin told me he has seen a photograph with this rock removed, showing an entrance into a tunnel.

Dowgin immediately struck me as self-effacing, open and personable. One other thing: this guy has a serious affinity for these tunnels. He must have given this tour to hundreds of people, but he seemed just as eager as if were giving this tour for the first time–even if in his earnestness he waxed tangential. I was the only one on the tour that day, so I didn’t feel guilty asking plenty of questions, however by the end of the hour-long walk, and subsequent 30 minute basement tour, my head was spinning with countless names and facts. Let’s see if I can present an accurate yet simplified version of what I learned:

According to Dowgin, these tunnels were used to smuggle goods from Derby Wharf into the Salem Customs house and beyond. Originally, there were some tunnels built in the 1600s to evade paying taxes to the British. But the majority of tunnels were actually built at the beginning of the 19th century in an effort to avoid taxation of goods by the US federal government and to help the powerful, wealthy families of Salem stay powerful and wealthy.

The very first tunnels went from Derby Wharf into the Customs House.

The mastermind of these tunnels was a man by the name of Elias Hasket Derby Jr. who, in short, used his position of power to create this web of tunnels and continue his extravagant lifestyle. He leveraged his control over the local militia to level the hills and fill the ponds on the Commons, a perfect opportunity to hide the dirt from digging all his underground tunnels.

I asked him how obvious the tunnels were to the local Salem residents, and Dowgin replied that the real people they were trying to fool were those in the Federal Government, some of whom could also be bribed and brought into the subterfuge. But for the local residents, the tunnels were “kind of like the Mafia. Everyone knew about them, but no one really talked about it.” Apparently most people were bribed into silence anyway.

According to Dowgin, there are some key signs a tunnel may be actually beneath your feet. Here are some of the things look for:

Exterior chimneys were inefficient in terms of heat, but provided necessary stability when creating hidden entrances to tunnels in basements.

Strange doors and metal covers in the ground like the one on the Commons could be covering up old hidden tunnel entrances.

Dowgin believes that old tunnels were later repurposed as utility conduits like sewers. Look for manholes with vents (providing air in the tunnels), and for old manholes that follow in a line, indicating the direction of a tunnel.

The underground basement tour, which started in the basement of The Gathering at Salem church (once the old Eastern Bank/Naumkeag Trust Building), proved to be even more fascinating. This is where knowledge of each building’s architecture and foundation is key. Dowgin quickly pointed out areas of walls in strange places, blocked off arches and corridors between building foundations he believes were once all part of the tunnels.

The story of these smuggling tunnels are rich in intrigue and mystery, both of which make for a fascinating tour and even more fascinating speculation. Dowgin also believes these tunnels were used to hide slaves during as part of the Underground Railroad. Coming away from the tour, I was left with a feeling that myth had indeed become a reality, and I have found myself unconsciously scanning downtown Salem for clues of hidden tunnels ever since my tour. Some may doubt the level and complexity to which Dowgin portrays these tunnels. Afterall, it is hard to believe what you cannot see. But Dowgin believes with such intensity and compelling determination, that at the end of a tour with him, you will become a believer too.

Dowgin’s inscription in his book which I purchased after the tour.

What about you? What do you think about the Salem smuggling tunnels? Does this make you want to go on a tour?

For more information and to reserve tickets, go to Chris Dowgin’s webpage here. If you have a special request, or want to go at a different time listed, you can call him up. He was very flexible and accommodating over the phone.

— Madelene Pario

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