Whispers of tunnels, secret rooms and runaway slaves have swirled around the Anchorage, Marietta, Ohio’s mysterious mansion on the hillside, for more than a century.
Douglas Putnam was the richest man in Marietta in 1855 when his strong-willed second wife Eliza informed him she wanted a new house. But Eliza did not want just any house. She wanted a mansion that was larger, grander and more beautiful than the one her friend in New Jersey had. Douglas agreed. It was easier than arguing. Besides he knew Eliza would manage the entire project from groundbreaking to drapery selection. All he had to do was pay the bills.
Eliza knew he'd say yes. She was used to getting what she wanted. She came from a wealthy, influential family in Zanesville. Her father was Levi Whipple, an ardent supporter of the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped slaves escape from Southern plantations and travel north to freedom. Eliza shared her father’s views on the evils of slavery. So did her new brother-in-law, David Putnam, Douglas’s brother.
When Eliza married Douglas Putnam she had moved to Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River. Today the opposite bank is in West Virginia. When Eliza was planning her dream house, West Virginia did not exist. The other side of the river was in the slave-holding state of Virginia, enemy territory as far as Abolitionists like Eliza were concerned.
Local historians insist there was never a connection between the Anchorage, as Eliza’s mansion is known now, and the Underground Railroad. They point out that by the time construction on the house began the Underground Railroad was in decline. The vast majority of people who fled along its secret routes had already left the South. That’s clear now, but would it have been obvious in 1855? No. It wouldn’t.
Try to put yourself in Eliza’s place. She and her extended family were keenly aware of the growing likelihood of war. She, her father and brother-in-law were committed Abolitionists with access to unlimited funds. They were planning to build a mansion practically on top of the boundary between the North and the South. To think they would not have discussed adding secret hiding places is laughable. Of course they talked about it. Did it go further than talk?
Tunnels to Nowhere
There are tunnels in the basement of the Anchorage that lead into the surrounding hillside. The question is not whether they exist. They do. I’ve seen them. The question is why they are there and how far they go.
The Anchorage’s hillside is riddled with springs. It’s soggy and unstable. Geologists, engineers and construction experts believe the tunnels were designed for drainage. Without them, the weight of the enormous house would cause the ground to slip and possibly cave in. Henry Burke, local expert on the Underground Railroad, agreed with this explanation. However, just because something is designed for one purpose does not mean it can’t be used for another.
Imagine the mindset of wealthy people like the Putnams during the run up to the Civil War. They were worried about protecting their cash, jewelry, documents, paintings, and other valuables. A band of bloodthirsty Confederates could cross the Ohio River and raid Marietta. It could happen without warning. It would be critical to have a safe place to hide things quickly. The drainage tunnels may have served that purpose.
We’ve all heard rumors that there are or were tunnels from the house to the banks of the Muskingum River. Not true. A tunnel that long would be unstable. It would need to be reinforced several places and there would have to be dozens of fresh air sources along the way. It’s just too complicated. It’s a myth.
My mother grew up in Zanesville. Oddly enough, she heard the same stories about tunnels leading from grand houses to the Muskingum. Her parents warned her to stay away from them. Like everyone else in the area, they were afraid kids would find a tunnel opening along the riverbank, crawl in and drown.
Some people claim all you have to do is examine the life of Douglas Putnam to realize the Anchorage could not have been part of the Underground Railroad. Assisting runaway slaves was a serious crime – even in Ohio. Douglas was a cautious, conservative businessman. They argue he would never have put his wealth at risk, especially not for a political cause. That’s probably true. But this wasn’t just about Douglas. To see the complete picture, you must add Eliza, her father, and David Putnam. The fight against slavery was not a political matter or a business calculation for them; it was a moral and religious crusade. I suspect they had plenty to say about whether secret passages should be included in the Anchorage. Perhaps, once again, Douglas found it easier to say yes than to argue.
A critical piece of the puzzle comes from one of the last private residents of the Anchorage, Eddie MacTaggert. He grew up on a farm outside Williamstown, WV, just across the Ohio River from Marietta. His grandfather was active in the Underground Railroad. He told young Eddie the Anchorage and the people who lived there were key players in the struggle. After MacTaggert made a fortune in the Oklahoma oilfields, he returned to Marietta intent on buying the Anchorage. He told everyone the main reason he wanted the house was its connection to the Underground Railroad.
There is one final clue. There is a tiny room directly beneath the kitchen in the basement of the Anchorage. You have to squeeze through a concealed opening to get inside. It’s little more than a large crawl space. I’m 5’2” and I can stand up inside, but just barely. Anyone taller would have to stoop or sit. The room is there. There’s no denying that. So far no one has come up with an explanation for it – other than the obvious. It’s a hiding place.
Based on what I’ve seen and read, I believe the Anchorage contains emergency hiding places for both people and things. Were they ever used? I sort of doubt it, but who knows? This is my opinion. Not everyone agrees. What do you think? What have you seen or heard? Post your comments below.