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North End History: Beneath the North End

“Beneath the North End”

“So how many tunnels are there beneath the North End,” she asked. “Well, about ten,” I responded. “Really? TEN tunnels!” the tourist in the red raincoat exclaimed. “Naw, just kiddin’,” I said, “Only four.”

Fascination with the North End’s secret tunnels goes back several centuries: from the days when Captain Gruchy smuggled ashore the four divine and beautifully carved wood statues that now adorne the organ of Old North Church. To this day, many property owners still claim to have “secret” tunnels in their basements that were allegedly once used for various illicit ends – by merchants avoiding the prying eyes of the King’s customs agents, to rum runners of the mid-1800s and bootleggers during Prohibition.

But how much of this is true? Or is this just the allure of popular folklore? I set out to track down some answers by consulting, first, the éminence grise of upper Salem Street – the Reverend Stephen Ayres, Vicar of Old North Church. Rev. Ayres welcomes 7000 worshipers a year to his hallowed Episcopal church on Salem Street, also known as Christ Church in the City of Boston. Another 600,000 visitors come there to learn about early American history. This is where I had first heard the tale of privateer Gruchy, his stolen contraband, and his secret tunnel.

“Vicar Ayres,” I began, meeting up with him in front of his church, “can you tell me something about the North End’s secret tunnels?”

“You’ll have to talk to Sonny,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Just talk with Sonny,” he repeated with an ever-so-slight smile pursing his lips. Rev. Ayres can be a touch taciturn at times, I thought.

Now I had a double mystery to solve: who was this “Sonny” and where were the alleged tunnels? After a few more inquiries, I found myself standing on the stoop of a rather distinguished residence further up Salem Street. A slight and immaculately dressed gentleman with silver hair and mischievous eyes answered the door. Not the type I had half-expected to meet with a name like Sonny. I’d anticipated someone with the looks of world welterweight champ Tony DeMarco.

After mentioning the query of the lady in the red raincoat and explaining my mission, Sonny opened his front door wide.  “So, you want to see Captain Gruchy’s tunnel?” he asked.

My heart leapt as he beckoned me in and we descended the wooden stairs to his basement. I felt a sense of traveling though time, as we passed a “Bellotti for Governor” poster tacked to the staircase wall and stacks of old Life magazines neatly bundled at the bottom. I felt as if I was back in my own grandfather’s cellar.

“Well, here you are,” said Sonny. “This is the entrance to Captain Gruchy’s secret tunnel.”

He was standing at the far end of the basement. There, in front of him, was an enormous, curved brick expanse about four feet wide by five feet tall bulging outward into the basement. It looked as if some force on the other side was trying to get out.

“That’s it? That’s all?” I asked with incredulity. “That’s the entrance to Gruchy’s tunnel? Can we go in?”

“Oh no, not today. Not ever,” Sonny laughed. “My grandfather bricked it up many years ago. He was afraid that one of us kids might get hurt.”

A sudden sense of disappointment flowed over me. “But did he, did anyone ever go into this tunnel?” I asked.

“Well, yes. That’s what I’ve been told,” Sonny said. “Before he had it bricked up, they did go in. They even found an old rusted sword inside. Somebody wanted to buy it, so it was sold. Probably for a pittance at the time. A shame. But this tunnel was part of a network of tunnels. One ran over to the crypt at Old North and one went off under the Copps Hill Burying Grounds. The main tunnel continued up Salem Street under Charter and then down to Gruchy’s wharf along the harbor.”

Sonny explained that Gruchy had been a privateer, licensed by the King of England to prey upon French ships during the war with France. He had intercepted a French ship heading to a convent in Quebec, seized the cargo, and upon his return to Boston brought his contraband up through his tunnel and donated those four carved statues to his church, Christ Church, just down the street.

“So whatever became of Gruchy?” I asked.

“It’s hard to know,” said Sonny. “After awhile, they say, he just  up and left town, disappeared into thin air!”

“And Gruchy’s tunnels? Whatever happened to them?”

“Well, as you see, they continued to exist,” Sonny said. “Gruchy’s house was eventually torn down and replaced by the present residence built by the Dodd family, distinguished furriers in Boston. And there, right there where you’re standing, that was the original well providing water to the house,” he said, pointing at my feet.

I looked down to find myself standing in the center of a ring of granite.

“That was the original well that Gruchy had excavated,” Sonny added.

“And this well your grandfather also had filled up?” I asked.

“You guessed it,” Sonny smiled.

“Busy man, your grandfather,” I laughed.

“But that’s not the end of the story,” Sonny said with look of mischief. “You remember the ‘Great Brinks Robbery’ back in January 1950? Happened just down the street next to the Gassy. It was billed as ‘the crime of the century’. An 11-member gang broke into the Brinks depot, bound and gagged the five employees, and walked away with almost $3 million in cash, checks and securities.”

“The next day,” Sonny continued, “the FBI showed up at my door.

They wanted to see the tunnel. ‘What tunnel?’ I asked. ‘We want to see the tunnel in your basement,’ one of the FBI agents insisted. ‘What makes you think I’ve got a tunnel?’ I insisted. ‘We know everything,’ said the FBI agent. ‘Now show us the tunnel!’

“So I took them downstairs,” recounted Sonny, “and showed them the bricked-up tunnel entrance. And as they were leaving, I hollered after them, ‘Hey guys! So tell me, do you know who pulled off the Brink’s heist?’  One of the agents turned and said, ‘No, not yet!’ So I said, ‘Hey, I thought you guys knew everything.’”

As I left his house along Salem Street, I thanked Sonny for helping me solve the mystery of one of the four North End secret tunnels. And the other three? They’re no secret: Callahan, Sumner and the Big Dig.

Guild Nichols is the founder and president of NorthEndBoston.com, the premiere web site portal for comprehensive information on dining, shopping, visiting and living in Boston’s historic North End.


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