Possible discovery of mystery tunnel just a pipe dream

Crews working on the Argyle streetscape project have uncovered an old brick chamber that looks like the entryway to a tunnel. Unfortunately, history buffs and legend lovers won't be celebrating the long-awaited proof of secret passageways underneath Halifax just yet.

'I would love a tunnel system, but there's no tunnel system,' says Halifax archeologist

A brick chamber uncovered by construction crews on Argyle Street. (Historic Halifax, NS - Then & Now/Facebook)

A long-awaited sighting of one of Halifax's storied, secret tunnels has been debunked almost as quickly as word spread about its discovery. 

History buffs and mystery lovers were holding their breath after seeing a promising post on the Historic Halifax, NS - Then & Now Facebook page that as of Wednesday afternoon had more than 900 shares.

It's a photograph of construction workers standing on an old, brick chamber uncovered on Argyle Street near the Carleton Music Bar and Grill, one of the oldest buildings in the city.

"An old tunnel opening was uncovered today on one of Halifax's street intersections — Argyle and Prince streets," reads the post. "Stay tuned."

Halifax archeologist Laura de Boer stands nearby where construction crews uncovered a small chamber underneath Argyle Street on Tuesday. (Dianne Paquette)

Fascinated readers were quick to comment on the discovery and make guesses as to what the tunnel would have been used for years ago.

"The old legends are true," wrote Patrick J. McManus. 

One person speculated it was a passageway to Halifax harbour.

"There has always been a rumour of a tunnel from Citadel Hill to [Georges] Island. Is this it?" wrote James D. Haviland.

Just a sewer line

Laura de Boer, on-site archeologist for the Argyle streetscape project, agreed the opening certainly looks like a tunnel entrance. But to the dismay of many, she ultimately rejected that theory.

"I would love a tunnel system, but there's no tunnel system," said de Boer.

It turns out the brick chamber is an entry point, designed to fit one person, that Halifax Water and its predecessors have used to access a 24-inch-diameter clay sewer pipeline that runs down the centre of Argyle Street.

A newly modernized concrete chamber has replaced the brick entry point to a wastewater pipeline on Argyle Street that was mistake for a tunnel. (Diane Paquette)

The pipeline is still active and the brick chamber that leads to it was slated for replacement by Halifax Water during the Argyle streetscape project. The brick has been restored with modern concrete because the mortar was starting to decay.

De Boer guesses the pipeline dates back to before the 1900s, but has asked Halifax Water for a more accurate date.

The legend of Halifax's tunnels

Having worked seven years as a full-time archeologist in Halifax, de Boer is no stranger to the search for the city's legendary system of tunnels. 

In a 2015 documentary that aired on CBC's Land and Sea, de Boer investigated a bricked-over arched entryway underneath the Bluenose II Restaurant on Hollis Street only to learn the long-sealed entryway led to a brick wall.  

Other doorways she's seen in the basements of downtown businesses, including one beneath the Halifax Club, have turned out to be hatches used for the delivery of goods, not portals to secret passageways. 

According to Underground Halifax, multiple reports from maintenance crews and engineers, starting as early as 1919, discuss tunnels below the streets of Halifax. 

Rumour has it the tunnels, including a passageway from the fortress on Citadel Hill to Fort Charlotte on Georges Island, were built below the streets to move troops around the city in secret. 

So far, however, there's been no concrete, physical evidence proving the existence of a system of tunnels. 

Other fascinating finds

Work on the Argyle streetscape project has also unearthed an assortment of artifacts, including transfer printed pearl stoneware by Wedgwood that likely dates between 1854 and 1860, as well as a teapot lid by Rockingham Ware that likely dates between 1850 and 1900.

The artifacts were found in an old stone sewer that runs along the west edge of Argyle Street.

"It's always interesting to find these little bits and pieces of what Halifax used to be like," said de Boer.

"As an archeologist, a lot of our work involves looking at people's garbage, we like to joke. But it's very telling about what kind of lifestyle and what kind of affluence we used to have in Halifax."

These artifacts will go to the Nova Scotia Museum. (CBC)

Old cobblestones that once made up Argyle Street have also been uncovered from underneath the edge of the sidewalk.

De Boer said the stones were likely hauled up from the beach by horse or ox cart and laid out to make a major improvement to Halifax's original mud streets.

With files from Diane Paquette, Colleen Jones