NEWBURYPORT — Preparations for the creation of an ale house appear to have opened a discussion on the history of rum.

A routine assessment of ground surrounding the proposed Merrimac Ale House near the river has revealed an old tunnel that might have been used when local merchants dealt in rum.

A crew from the municipal Department of Public Services was working in front of 40 Merrimac St. Thursday at the site of the old Davis Auto Parts store, located at the intersection of Merrimac and Green streets. During excavation, an old brick tunnel about 5 feet high was discovered.

The presence of the tunnel was not a surprise. DPS managers said that the tunnel carries runoff water from storms.

But it once may have had a different role.

Some historians muse about the days when 18th-century merchants moved barrels of rum to and from the riverfront — some reportedly in secret tunnels.

Mayor Donna Holaday Friday indicated city engineers are assessing the situation. Holaday descended on a ladder to inspect the well-preserved structure.

Local 18th-century lore holds that after merchants would dock their ships on the river, they would send produce through tunnels to homes or businesses to avoid paying tariffs to the English, who managed the colony until the Revolution.

During that Colonial period, merchants imported molasses and other substances to make rum. The city had 10 rum distilleries at that time, and trade in that beverage was among the most prosperous businesses in the city.

Local historian Ghlee Woodworth said, “Tunnels went to High Street (where merchants lived), and I believe my father actually saw an entrance blocked up in a High Street cellar.

“Someone had to pay to build them, and they could have been used by those who wanted to avoid paying taxes. But those of us who enjoy research have not come across many written words that discuss where and why the tunnels were built.”

Over the past several decades, tunnels have reportedly been found under Green, State, Inn and Federal streets. In the 1970s, a Daily News reporter explored one of the tunnels that was discovered during the downtown’s restoration.

There is also a known tunnel entrance at Bartlet Mall, next to Frog Pond. The location of that entrance, which is closed up, has led to a theory advanced by some historians that the tunnels may have been intended for fire suppression.

Police Marshal Thomas Howard, who inspected the site, said, “This tunnel is well-preserved, and seems to run a couple hundred feet. It’s said tunnels were built to avoid taxes; right now tunnels are useful in moving rain water run-off during big storms.”

Michael Mroz, director of the Custom House Maritime Museum, said, “I know of no definitive source which rests the story of these tunnels, which is curious for a project that would have required such obvious work in so public a space.”

He said that this tunnel and others might have been part of a water run-off system but added, “Location is a consideration. I think at some point you need to entertain the thought of smuggling if only because of the profit motive ...  and for romantic notion’s sake.”

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