Tunnels in Federal Hill

August 09, 1992

Federal Hill seems to be one of those places where the more things change, the more they stay the same. So it is with the tunnels in the hill, which pop into public notice every few decades. The contractor shoring up the unstable north face of Federal Hill Park unearthed a large cavern 20 or 30 feet below the surface. Meticulously carved and arched, it runs some 200 feet, with a large chamber. An archaeologist got a quick look, and the entrance was quickly sealed before the curious could get in.

Existence of tunnels under the park and, indeed, under a considerable area of the surrounding neighborhood, has long been documented. The surprise was that this tunnel, so close to the north face, still exists. The slope has been altered or shored up repeatedly because its clay and sand are unstable, slipping down into what is now Key Highway periodically for well over a century. In fact, the city took it over as a park in the 1870s largely to prevent further damage.

Other tunnels have made themselves known over the years by caving in -- sometimes inconveniently under someone's home. Records are spotty, so the purpose, extent and location of the tunnels have long been a neighborhood guessing game and a topic for more serious study by local historians. The best guess ++ about the latest find is that it was excavated by a glass manufacturer at the foot of the hill for its fine sand.

But there's more down there, and it is a pity that the impecunious city can't afford to do a little more digging. No telling what they would find. There may be remains of a Civil War fort -- but probably not of a legendary tunnel from there to Camden Station. Early accounts talk of so much digging in the hill that The Sun worried in 1840 that the historic site was being destroyed by excavations.

According to one account, a neighborhood brewer stored his wares inside the hill. Visitors to the newly discovered tunnel report a steady temperature of 50 degrees -- ideal for the beer that is brewed a few blocks away on Cross Street and across the harbor just off the Fallsway, or for the well-stocked wine cellars that adorn some homes in the neighborhood. The early residents who celebrated the adoption of the Constitution on the hill 200 years ago would have appreciated that.

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