Heritage head wants Carbonear to preserve historic hidden cellars

By Mark Squibb
September 22, 2023

While the Town of Carbonear has expressed interest in preserving the historic cellars discovered beneath 193 Water Street this past spring, council has not yet made a firm decision on how to proceed.

During last week’s public meeting, council voted to hire Strake Engineering to design a structural protection system for the core of the vault cellars at a price of $4,200, plus HST.

Council did not discuss the matter further, but in following up with Town staff, The Shoreline learned the intent is to have the structural engineer design a system that Carbonear can use to determine the cost of maintaining the cellars. Council will then review the cost estimate before deciding how to proceed.

The two cellars – it is believed a third was possibly destroyed accidentally during construction along Water Street – were a pretty big topic of conversation when first unearthed back in April.

“The tunnels were a mystery, and mysteries build suspense,” said Keith Thomas, president of the Carbonear Heritage Society. “And when you have a tunnel that extends 12 to 15 feet out underneath a major street in one of the oldest towns in Newfoundland and Labrador, people do begin to speculate and wonder, ‘How did they get there? Why were they there? How come they didn’t cave in over the last two hundred years? Who bult them? Where did they come from? What were they used for? How many more tunnels are there? How many more have been destroyed?’”

While the more romantically inclined might speculate they were intended as hiding spots in the event of a seizure of Carbonear by either the French or pirates, it’s more likely the two cellars were part of a drainage system or used as food cellars.

“The theory is that every building on Water Street, where they didn’t have a back garden, they would have had an underground cellar,” said Thomas. “That’s where the merchants would have put their preserves or their valuables or their vegetables in the winter.”

Thomas said the Town has not yet reached out to the Heritage Society in an official capacity regarding the discovery, and he was not aware of last week’s motion.

Regardless, Thomas said it’s imperative that the cellars be preserved.

“More diligence should be given to the fact that something historical was found in Carbonear,” said Thomas. “Yes, we have to get water and sewer put in, but this is an opportunity for us to investigate history… And it’s important to protect your history because if you forget your history, you’ll have trouble in the future. And the type of construction used in those tunnels, in those cellars, could be studied and investigated and looked at— how did they survive so many years? There was no cement used in these cellars. They were dry mount construction. How did they use the force of gravity to keep something up for so many years? So, history is important. You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.”

Thomas said heritage tourism is a major economic driver the world round, and the town would do well to preserve the tunnels and open them for the public.

“The tunnels are part of a bigger picture in Carbonear, and people will come to Carbonear from Vancouver to see those tunnels,” said Thomas. “Tourism is a great thing in Newfoundland, especially since our fishery has declined… And there are people in society who only go to places because of the history.”

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