Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Underground downtown: Looking beneath the streets

Published in the Portland Phoenix

For years, many people have heard rumors about secret spaces beneath our feet on the Portland peninsula. Now the Portland Phoenix can reveal the truth about several of these. We have three categories: places I've been and seen myself; places that exist as confirmed by historical records or accounts of people I've spoken with; and places whose existence is third-hand at best (even if the details are startlingly specific) and must therefore remain somehow in question. This is obviously in addition to the tunnels, such as those related to liquor-smuggling during Prohibition or helping slaves escape to Canada, that once existed in Portland, but whose locations have been lost to time, development, or Commercial Street's construction.
"There are a lot of tunnels in Portland's history," says local historian Michelle Souliere. "The question is how many of those still exist in some form or another." If you have any information about any of these things, please send me an email at and let me know!
The first place I've actually been is also the most commonly known, and least interesting: the TUNNEL UNDER CONGRESS STREET built in 1966 between the former Portland Press Herald building at 390 Congress Street and the paper's former printing plant across the street, next to City Hall. I've been in it, as have many Press Herald staffers over the years. It looks exactly like the hallways in your junior high school classroom, and is about as exciting. The tunnel allowed workers to go from one building to the other without going outside or dodging traffic; also, a conveyor belt carried heavy lead printing plates from the stereotype room in the main building to the printing plant across the street. As built, it was 154 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high, according to a Press Heraldreport of its construction. "The tunnel, with its average five to seven feet of gravel, the concrete slab and the paving overhead, makes an ideal bomb shelter," says the report, now available on the Press Herald's website (see above). It will be sealed off, according to plans for renovating the main building into a hotel.
I have also been to the SPACE UNDERNEATH THE PORTLAND STAR MATCH BUILDING on West Commercial Street; formerly the bunkers for the sulfur and other chemicals used to make the matches (and you thought Waterville had the monopoly on making trees into tiny bits of wood!), the cellars are very tunnel-like, and have several caves with thick brick walls, and a climate that might be excellent for storing wine.
The old BOWLODROME BOWLING ALLEY underneath the Forest Avenue parking lot next to Portland Stage Company and behind the old Strand Theater building on Congress Street. Vin Veroneau, president of JB Brown and Company, a major downtown property owner, recalls bowling there as a child. Harold Pachios, one of the owners of the building, believes something is still there: "I understand that there's the remains of a bowling alley," though he was unsure what might be left after more than 50 years of disuse. (Gerv says the bowling alley is "real and quite beautiful.")
ANOTHER BOWLING ALLEY, also on Forest Avenue, in the basement of a building across from the Portland Stage Company building, as shown in a map of the city's downtown from 1954.
A THIRD BOWLING ALLEY, this in the basement of the Portland YMCA on Forest Avenue (yes, indeed!) and reported by the Evening Express as one of several activities at a 1965 Y "family night." Michelle Souliere, owner of the Green Hand Bookshop and curator/publisher of the Strange Maine blog and its associated Gazette zine, recalls taking gymnastics lessons down there in the '80s: "We did pommel horse stuff on the lanes."
FOURTH BOWLING ALLEY, the Bowlaway, on the site of the Portland Museum of Art. Though it's very clearly on 1948 and 1954 maps of Portland, museum spokeswoman Kristen Levesque says she had never heard of such a thing.
The ARCADE/MALL ON THE GROUND FLOOR OF THE TIME AND TEMP BUILDING extends downstairs, with old long-abandoned shops and bathrooms with marble countertops; Veroneau says the space hearkens back to the Dick Tracy era.
UNDERGROUND BRICK ARCHWAYS near the corner of India and Commercial streets. Perhaps the source of the persistent "unfinished subway system" rumors — which remain unsubstantiated — they were the remains of an old "interim train station that served the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad back in the 1840s," former Portland transportation director Jeff Monroe told PortlandMagazine in 2008.
Sets of SLIDING DOORS IN THE BASEMENT of the Maine College of Art that connect it with two neighboring buildings to the east. (Though several downtown buildings have connecting basements, a rumored tunnel connecting the Oak Street student housing with the old Porteous building does not exist, according to MECA president Don Tuski.)
SPACES DIRECTLY BENEATH THE SIDEWALKS on several areas of Congress Street. According to Veroneau and Tuski, the State Theatre, the old Porteous building, and the Mechanics Hall all have basements that extend beyond their buildings, reaching underneath the sidewalks but stopping around the point the actual street begins. It's not unreasonable to think other buildings are similarly equipped, but those are the three I have specifics on.
A TUNNEL BETWEEN THE OLD PORTLAND HALL BUILDING AND GENO'S Rock Club. Christian Matzke, a former Portland Hall resident assistant has spent time in both buildings' basements, and says "without a doubt there's a tunnel," though it's blocked off by rubble at both ends. There also appears to have been a tunnel heading across the street, Matzke says, though that's also filled in.
A TUNNEL IN BAYSIDE underneath the a building at the corner of Oxford and Preble streets that once housed an office of Congressman Tom Allen. Matzke, who once worked as an intern for Allen, recalls finding a door locked from the outside that served as storage, but also contained something else: "There's a hole in the floor larger than a manhole cover, with a large piece of metal put across it." With another intern, Matzke removed the metal and descended to a chamber that had a mattress in one corner, and was obviously an intersection of several tunnels coming from other locations.
Tunnels connected to the foundation of the MASONIC HALL.
A tunnel CONNECTING THE MCLELLAN HOUSE TO THE CUMBERLAND CLUB; its existence was simultaneously posited and denied by PMA spokeswoman Kristen Levesque.
An entrance to the tunnels in one of the buildings off MONUMENT SQUARE.
The LEN'S MARKET TUNNEL. "The story went that there was a tunnel that connected Len's Market to the Eastland" hotel, Matzke says. Souliere has also heard tell of this tunnel, from a descendant of the original Len; a parking lot is now on the site, leading her to expect that the tunnel has been filled or collapsed.
Which leads us to the most-rumored tale: the TUNNELS STARTING AT THE EASTLAND PARK HOTEL that "used to run out into different points in the city," says Souliere. After initially being very responsive to an inquiry and inviting me to an in-person meeting a few days away, Jeff Cappellieri of the Westin Portland Harborview called to cancel just three hours before the interview was to happen, and was not able to reschedule before deadline. We'll have to leave that in the "rumors" column — for now.