Bill’s Mythbusters: Portland Tunnels

Beginning in 1923 work began on a new intake and conduit system at Sebago Lake to convey water to the transmission mains, thereby increasing the amount of water available to Portland area residents.

The Portland tunnels myth is one of the most frequent inquiries we receive at the MHS Library, and cannot be easily answered.  Last month, we asked you to send us your stories of tunnels running beneath our beloved city streets to help us uncover the myth of the Portland tunnels once and for all! We received several myths from our readers and friends, who shared stories about alleged underground activity throughout the peninsula. Some of the stories were believable (such as passages used by shop owners whose buildings were across from one another on Congress St.) and others were fantastical (tunnels built “to the future”). Michelle Souliere, of Strange Maine, began researching the supposed tunnels in 2005, and gained great response to her October 26, 2005 blog post.

We thought if we started with the source for information about the city’s streets and utilities, Portland’s Department of Public Works GIS maps, we would get a quick and easy answer. We were proved wrong. A call to the Public Works Department informed us that the city’s archivist (and keeper of the GIS maps) has retired. In the interim, Michelle Sweeney at City Hall has assumed the task, and we connected with her. We e-mailed back and forth regarding an alleged subway system, hidden rooms, liquor passages and even the “tunnel to the future.” Sweeney confirmed the tunnel between the old Press Herald Building at 119 Exchange Street and its printing facility across Congress Street.

October 1966 Portland Press Herald article about their new tunnel

As we investigated tunnel myths, we opened a can of worms with yet another myth of an unfinished subway system. We heard from locals who went into the tunnels to see where the subway would have been. (I should point out that until I walk through a tunnel, I won’t believe or confirm it exists). Sweeney suggests that a 1904 city “Plan of Underground Structures” which shows the usual sewage and utility lines and vaults,  may be the genesis of the subway myth. Trolley tracks indicated on the surface may have been interpreted  by some as “underground structures” which they were not. There was never a subway in Portland. In the 1980s, Portland School of Art instructor Barbara Best drew up an elaborate set of blueprints for a mythical subway between the Mother of Victory and Longfellow Monuments which strengthened the legend.

While we would like to put a lid on this pandora’s box of tunnels, we can’t just yet. As mentioned in this blog, we are confirming one single tunnel at the old Portland Press Herald printing facility, and until I can walk through a tunnel myself, I won’t validate any of the claims made thus far. So, if you are a shop owner, or someone with secret building access, by all means invite me for a tour of your basements and tunnels. If you have blueprints or photos of substructures, feel free to swing by MHS and show us.

Unloading a cache of liquor from a ship in Portland during prohibition in 1920.

Can the utility passages be considered tunnels? I have to say not really, or at least in the way that our inquirers suggest, because the city installs these underground spaces for our sewers, power and gas lines, not for transporting booze from the wharfs into town during prohibition (or other non-utility activities). So, while you may see a vaulted door that seems perpetually locked in the basement of your building, it’s not necessarily a door to a tunnel that will reveal a bizarro Portland underground. A true tunnel would be one that was built with a purpose, such as to transport goods between buildings easily and with access to freight elevators. The Rines Family, who owned the Congress Building (State Theater) and the Eastland Park Hotel, reportedly had a tunnel for just those reasons. This is another tunnel that I’ve heard of and would like to believe existed (or exists) but until I walk through a tapestry of cobwebs and feel the cool, damp air that I imagine this sub-High street passage to have, I (as so many of us will) continue to spin yarns about tunnels in Portland.

-Bill Barry

William David Barry is an author, historian and MHS reference librarian. He can be reached at rdesk@mainehistory.org. 

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One thought on “Bill’s Mythbusters: Portland Tunnels

  1. gary w. libby says:

    Not a tunnel, but a hidden passageway betwwn two buildings that I actually walked through. In the early 1960s I was an usher at the Strand and Empire Theaters. There was a passageway connection between the Strand Theater’s men’s room into the Empire Theater’s men’s room in the abutting building.

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