The above image of Main Street in 1850 is from the collection of Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts
For me, one of the most interesting parts of writing Erin’s Children, the sequel to my debut novel, Kelegeen, was my decision to set it in Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester is the city in which I work. I’ve lived in one of its closest suburbs for about fifty years. After researching the history of Worcester in the 1850s I doubt I will ever look at the City in the same way again.
I wonder how many Worcesterites are aware that there are catacombs underneath some of the downtown streets. Way undneath. Forty feet underneath. They aren’t just tunnels, either. They are a series of pathways leading to various chambers. Their walls are made of brick and the elaborate chambers have archways leading into them. A bathtub was even discovered in one of the chambers.
There are conflicting reasons for why they were built. Some say it was because the land in the area was too boggy, that there was quicksand, and in order to build without the edifices sinking, a powerful structure had to be created below the surface for support. Others say it was because Main Street has been regraded so many times that what was once the first floor of the buildings there later went literally underground as the road level was raised. All seem to agree that the catacombs were built in the 1700s.
Even more disagreement seems to have ensued over their eventual use. There are those who hold that they were the site of illegal gambling including bare knuckle boxing, even hosting the likes of Jem Mace in 1850, a renowned British fighter, who supposedly went 50 rounds with his opponent under the streets of downtown Worcester.
Some say that at least a section of the catacombs was used as living quarters for the African-American employees of the hostlery above it. This, it is claimed, accounts for the aforementioned bathtub.
Others say it was a hiding place for escaping slaves. There were two known Underground Railroad sites in Worcester – one in the Tatnuck area and one in Mr. Hadwen’s barn (for folks familiar with Worcester, think Hadwen Square).
One known entrance to the catacombs was through the basement of the Bay State House Hotel on the corner of Main and Exchange Streets, built in 1854 and now a parking lot. Previous to being a hotel it was a tavern built sometime in the 1700s.
The whole idea of there being catacombs under the streets of downtown Worcester was just too enticing not to put them in Erin’s Children. When the book is released in December 2020, readers will have the chance to discover how one of the main characters ends up wandering through the tunnels and chambers as well as who and what she encounters there.
More on Worcester in the 1850s as it relates to Erin’s Children to come in future blog posts so stay tuned!
(For more information about Worcester’s Catacombs see Worcester’s Forgotten Catacombs by Charles W. Longeway, Sr.)