There is a network of underground tunnels beneath the streets of downtown New Bedford, although no one is quite sure why they are there.

New Bedford played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad, which guided enslaved African Americans to freedom. Frederick Douglass, who escaped bondage via the Underground Railroad system, called New Bedford his first home as a free man.

Local historian Lee Blake told, "We know that there are at least 700 fugitives who came to live in New Bedford." Massachusetts was a free state, and New Bedford became a haven for escaped slaves due to its bustling waterfront.

What if any role did New Bedford's vast network of underground caverns and tunnels play in the Underground Railroad?

Origin Of New Bedford's Underground Tunnels Will Remain A Mystery
Barry Richard/Townsquare Media

Professor John Bracey of the UMass Amherst African American History Department told the New Bedford Standard-Times in 1999, "The idea of a network of slaves moving from underground tunnel to underground tunnel would be unique."

Bracey added that it was "unlikely" the tunnels helped runaway escaped slaves to escape, "More than likely they are part of a generalized tunnel system under the city as a result of an underground economy in New Bedford."

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Others have speculated that bootleggers used the tunnels to smuggle bootlegged booze, or that they acted as an early sewage and rainwater runoff system.

Since there are no known records of who built the tunnels and why, we may never know the answer to the mystery.

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