It’s not unusual for a realtor to learn some history about a home during an open house, which is what happened last week in West Orange. Only the story she heard has local historians scratching their heads.
“An 80-year-old woman told me there were tunnels that ran under the house,” Rehana Deshpande told Jersey Digs. “When they were kids, they used to play in them.”
The two-story cottage at 29 Old Indian Road is believed to be the oldest house in West Orange. A sign hammered to the dormer reads — BUILT 1740 — which, if true, predates any other home or church in the historic St. Cloud neighborhood by a century. The house — which is deceptively spacious with five bedrooms and three full baths — has gone through many renovations over the years. However, rustic touches like the half-timbered walls and a central stone fireplace are believed to be original.
What other artifacts could be hiding behind the stone wall in the cellar, where the entrance to the tunnel purportedly used to be? It is easy to get lost in speculation about what purpose a tunnel could serve under an 18th-century home. A secret passageway could have provided a quick retreat from British soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
After all, West Orange is steeped in Revolutionary War stories. Along Main Street is a stone slab memorializing Tory Corner, where loyalists to the crown used to congregate. Perhaps the most interesting character in that story is Mary Williams, the wife of a Tory, who has become a local feminist icon for betraying her husband and choosing to support the revolution.
As for Revolutionary War-era tunnels in New Jersey, stories of underground passageways have been passed down about a nearby church. The Belleville Reformed Church was built over a copper mine that some say was converted into getaway tunnels during the war with the British. Others say the tunnels were a secret entryway into the mines, which the British kept surveillance over to prevent colonists from using the metal to make bullets, according to Michael Perrone, Belleville town historian.
“It’s a legend that’s been passed on forever,” Perrone said. “I’ve heard those stories since I was a kid and I have no reason to doubt them.”
However, Joe Fagan, the West Orange town historian, remains skeptical about the claims of tunnels in St. Cloud. “It would be great history. But in my opinion, a story of this magnitude can’t be built upon just hearsay,” Fagan said.
If you were the owner, would you break open the stone wall in the cellar? Or are some things better left unknown?