Can You Guess Where this is in Salem?

So What do You Think…

Kernwood Bridge Salem MA 1950'sTake your guesses and place them in the comment section below.


Smugglers and Senators, Thieves and Murderers

Salem Secret Underground Front Page of Salem Gazette

“These homes were built by respected architects – names like McIntire and Bulfinch. They were the homes and businesses of senators and Supreme Court justices,” said Dowgin. “And in the basements and under the fireplaces, many of them had smuggling tunnels.”

Dowgin, a local historian, has been primarily known for his illustrated children’s books “A Walk Through Salem” and “A Walk Under Salem,” which introduce readers to Salem history in a whimsical way. But his latest book is something different. “Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City” shows a new side to the famous merchants and captains of industry, one tinged with tax evasion, thievery and even murder.

“The practice of building smuggling tunnels probably dated back to the earliest days of Salem being used as a port,” said Dowgin. “But it really became a common occurrence in the early days of the United States.”

During the Revolutionary War, many shipping magnates in port cities all up and down the East Coast turned to privateering, amassing huge fortunes in wealth captured from British vessels. After the war, the fledgling republic tried to recapture some of that wealth, in the form of steep import duties and other taxes.

“We’d just had an expensive war, we were trying to get our country started, and everyone wanted the party they were opposed to shoulder the brunt of the tax burden,” Dowgin said. “In many ports, people were losing money, but Salem just kept getting richer and richer.”

Part of the reason was that many of the goods that entered Salem were immediately spirited into a complex tunnel network that kept them away from the prying eyes of customs agents. These tunnels extended far into the city, but began practically at Salem wharf itself. As an example, look at the 1762 Derby House, part of the Salem Maritime Historic Site.



“When Richard Derby built the Derby House for his son, Elias Hasket Derby and his new wife, Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby, it was the subject of much speculation in town,” Dowgin said. “In the late 18th century, houses weren’t commonly made of brick, because there was a superstition that brick houses were unhealthy. Then there was the question of why so many bricks were needed; about three times as many as you’d need for a house of that size.”

In reality, Dowgin said, the bricks were being used to construct a tunnel in the basement. Today, the entrance to the tunnel is slightly above grade, and visitors can see the bricked-in arch.

“After the Derby House, the tunnel builders got smarter,” Dowgin said. “They realized that, if they built two brick houses at a time at a fixed distance apart, no one could guess how many bricks were supposed to be there.”

Tunnel explosion


The result, Dowgin said, was an explosion of tunnel building. It connected the port area, with its large homes and brick structures like the Customs House — which was built on the foundations of the old Crowninshield family home and had a smuggling tunnel hidden under some mismatched floorboards in the corner — with the rest of the city’s underground network. In total, Dowgin estimates that at the height of Salem’s shipping power, there were as many as 100 tunnels, about 1.5 miles in total.

“Keep in mind, these tunnel builders were the richest people in town. They didn’t just own mansions, they owned stores and banks, they funded public parks and museums, they had private militias,” Dowgin said. “It was possible for a smuggler to take his goods off his ship, put them right into the tunnel system, take them to his house and store them in a hidden sub-basement, transfer them to a store where they would be sold, then take the money right back into the tunnel and deposit it in their own bank. And all the while it would remain under guard by militiamen who were basically bodyguards.”

Dirt and labor from the tunnel projects was disguised as part of the Salem Common’s massive improvement project.


“At one point, there were three hills and five little ponds on the Common,” Dowgin said. “They flattened it out so they would have a way to explain all the commotion and moving earth. Many of the 144 contributors to the Salem Improvement Fund, which paid for the Common project, were families involved in smuggling.”

Even today, the Common is ringed with brick houses from the period — such as the houses owned by the Story and White families, who were embroiled in a famous 1830 murder recently studied by historian Robert Booth in his new book “Death of an Empire.” Dowgin said houses around the Common display many of the characteristics he looks for in a tunnel house.

“The placement of the fireplace is important — it must be flush with an outer wall. Many of the tunnels were built into fireplaces because the burning fire acted as an oxygen draw which kept the air in the tunnels breathable,” Dowgin said. “To check my guesses, I made friends with a lot of the home owners, and those I couldn’t speak to — I waited until they were having an open house and then went and looked for myself.”

Slaves and speakeasies

The construction of Salem’s tunnels slowed around 1850, as the size of Salem’s port was no longer adequate for most of the powerful ocean-trading vessels and its importance as a port city waned. But city legend did not leave the tunnels empty for long.

“There are persistent rumors, nothing verifiable, that Salem tunnels were used on the Underground Railroad,” Dowgin said. “And during Prohibition, the tunnels were used for underground speakeasies.”

Dowgin has been able to verify the remains of many tunnel sites, but an intact tunnel is rare. Many were used for sewer and utility lines or bricked up for structural reasons. Dowgin has collaborated with his publisher, Salem House Press, to create a walking tour of the remaining tunnel sites, which can be seen at Dowgin also leads tours of the tunnel sites himself.


But one tunnel is still intact — the tunnel that leads from the basement of Rockafella’s restaurant to the stockroom of the Goddess Treasure Chest gift shop.

“When I bought the store, a fire department official came to check the place, and told me that he thought the tunnel had been used to help free slaves,” said Sylvia Martinez, who owns the Goddess Treasure Chest. “I love having it here. It’s a part of Salem history.”

“Salem Secret Underground” is on sale at Remember Salem and Wicked Good Books on Essex Street. Also it is available at Barnes & Noble and




~Mr. Zac

Tales from Mr. Zac~ The Stoned Elephant

The Stoned Elephant, the first elephant that was brought to America.So what is a stoned elephant. Well it definitely is not the one that had Edison’s acquaintance for the day. That was the shocking elephant. No, the Stoned Elephant was the first Elephant that was brought to America. Congressman Jacob Crowninshield once sailed the seven seas. On a trip to Calcutta India in 1796 he purchased an elephant and forgot to read the care and feeding sheet. On the way home the ship was running out of water, so they kept the water for the sailors and gave the baby elephant the remaining dark ale. By the time they reached port in NYC the elephant was stone cold drunk and suffered from malnutrition. So much so that she looked quite pink.  Some drunken wharf rats had seen her and the phrase has stuck with us ever since.

Well Old Bett became so fond of beer she would uncork a bottle and drink your ale for .25 cents. For a dollar she would drink a cask for you. To tell the truth I think she would of drank your beer for free… Crowninshield purchased her for $450 and then sold her for $10,000. The Elephant toured NYC before coming to MA to tour Marblehead, Salem, and Beverly. Reverend Bently notes he had seen Old Bett at the Market House in Salem in August 30, 1797.

The first elephant in America walked inn Salem, MA.

Statue of Old Bett the Stoned Elephant that came to Salem, MA.The Stoned Elephant was eventually acquired by Hackaliah Bailey, who got together the first American circus and became the Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. Bailey Circus consisted of four wagons, a trained dog, several pigs, a horse, and of course the elephant. Bailey toured the country for several years with Old Bet as his chief attraction, and when he returned to Somers in 1824, he built the hotel that is still standing, known as the Elephant Hotel. A statue of Old Bett now stands above a tall column in front of the hotel. In 1922, about a century after Old Bet’s alleged death, “Old John,” the star performing elephant of the herd of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, took a wreath on his trunk and placed it on the monument of Old Bet at Somers Village.Flying pigs on Derby Street in Salem, MA..

I say alleged death. There were a handful of  various rumors of her death in the most tragic of ways throughout the years, no one can confirm any of them.  She may still be out there somewhere drinking in a downtown bar. So if you see her, buy her a round from me! It possible, especially in a town where pigs fly….

~Mr. Zac

Mr. Zac looking surprised.

To find out more about Mr. Zac and his journeys through the magical whimsical side of a quirky little town called Salem, visit The Salem Trilogy site. Then buy the three books; A Walk Through Salem, A Walk Under Salem, and A Walk Above Salem;  today and take yourself on a truly amazing adventure into the truly warped.

News from Mr. Zac~ Who the Hell is Moses Farmer?

Farmer, Moses G.

So who the hell is he. Well he’s this Salem guy….

Moses Farmer of Salem, Ma who was the first to iluminate his house with electricity.Moses Gerrish Farmer (1820-1893) was an inventor who perhaps was the first person to have a room in his house lighted by electric incandescent sources. He lighted a room in his house at 11 Pearl St. Salem every night during the month of July, 1859. Now my friend Don and his son Andy live in the house. Its still filled with energy with a painter and drummer living there… Moses  used a galvanic battery in the cellar which current passed by wires up to his parlour where on the mantelpiece were two lamps. He discontinued it after a month because the acids and zinc in the battery made the lights cost 4x as much as his gas lights.

Moses started early. So did I, but I was telling my sister to stick a paperclip into the outlet…  She still has an amazing hairdo. At age 26, Moses had built an electric railroad and two years later improved the telegraph. At 30 he invented and constructed the fire alarm system with water powered dynamos and within 5 years, he discovered the means of duplex and quadrulex telegraph. In 1893 he went to the Chicago World Fair to help install the Tower of Light which was the show piece for General Electric. It was 82 feet tall with thousands of red, white, and blue bulbs. At the top was an 8 foot tall Edison bulb. Also at the fair was an exhibit showing Moses in his illuminated house in Salem. Unfortunately he caught pneumonia while attending and died…

Tesla was also at the Chicago World Fair. Could Moses and Nikola have met each other before the fair? There is a rumor that Tesla was in Salem and had built a small power Station for Pequot Mills (Shetland Park). Could the two have met in Salem? Hell, GE was in Lynn, could Edison, Farmer, and Tesla have sat in a restaurant in Salem and discussed electricity over a cup of coffee? Who is to say, but it is possible!

Naumkeag Steam Mill in Salem, Ma with small building in which Tesla built to power the mill.
The small building to the right might of been built by Tesla to power the mill.

His daughter, Sarah Farmer was the founder of  Green Acre conference facility in Eliot, Maine in 1894. The name Green Acre came from poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a personal friend of the Farmer family. As a member of the Bahá’í faith she would be instrumental in helping Teddy Roosevelt settle the Sino-Russian War between the Chinese and the Russians. She had offered Green Acres  as a peaceful setting to hold talks before the official summit at the Navy Base in Kittery Maine. The funny thing about the Navy, none of their bases are in the town they are named after….

Treaty of Portsmouth postcard in which Teddy Roosevelt preceded over.So that is who that Salem guy was. A truly shocking story, but not as shocking as that elephant that met Edison acquaintance.

~Mr. Zac

Mr. Zac from the Salem Trilogy written by Chris Dowgin and published by Salem House Press.

To find out more about Mr. Zac and his journeys through the magical whimsical side of a quirky little town called Salem, visit The Salem Trilogy site. Then buy the three books; A Walk Through Salem, A Walk Under Salem, and A Walk Above Salem;  today and take yourself on a truly amazing adventure into the truly warped.