Carpe’s Marina and the Underground Railroad

For a city that has hosted kings, presidents and many other world leaders, a visit from a cabinet secretary in an outgoing administration might seem like small potatoes. But Idaho’s Dirk Kempthorne, the current United States Secretary of the Interior, was here recently for a very special reason: to officially establish Carpe’s Marina as our city’s second entry in the National Register of Historic Places.

Nuncio Carpenello first went into business on the east bank of Keets Harbor in July, 1858, only days after arriving from Salerno, Italy. Local residents were amused when the burly immigrant constructed scaffolding inside his small and rickety wooden shack so elaborate that it forced him to sleep with his feet outside the walls. For many weeks afterward they heard the constant pounding of hammers and creaking of boards. In mid-September the shack suddenly disappeared, and in its place was a 26-foot long, eight-foot wide boat moored just offshore. Carpenello had built the craft on his own, from the hull up.

Soon “Nunce’s Ark” was a familiar sight, tooling around the harbor and navigating the tricky eddies of the Ostahanoc River. Large as it was, the “ark” drafted barely four inches deep, and could travel safely far upstream, even in the river’s shallow north branch. For the many businesses that lined the river, Carpenello’s craft provided both delivery and waste removal services that were cheaper and more reliable than the horse carts of the day, particularly given the uneven condition of the city’s roads in the late 1850s.

By early 1862, Carpenello’s wife and fifteen children had joined him in the United States, and in addition to his regular rounds upriver – extending from before dawn to well after dusk – he and his brood erected the building whose foundation still stands. Carpe’s Marina has been built and rebuilt at least a dozen times, surviving fires, floods and the remnant winds of half a dozen hurricanes. But the substructure supporting the building was as sturdy and thick as Carpenello himself. It had to be.

Beginning in autumn of 1861, Carpe’s Marina had become one of the principal stations on the Underground Railroad, the covert network of shelters for fugitive slaves on their way to freedom in the northern United States and Canada. The marina’s status as a secret hiding place for former slaves was so well-guarded, and the substructure of the building so solidly built, that evidence of its role was not re-discovered until 2002, when the marina was scheduled for demolition in advance of the new Happenstance Landing at Keets Harbor entertainment and shopping complex. Explosives experts surveying the lower levels of the building were surprised to find the foundation extending nine feet below their expectations.

That extra nine feet contained a sub-basement with a veritable treasure-trove of Civil War-era artifacts. As it turns out, Nuncio Carpenello’s delivery business had added those late-night and early-morning runs not to carry supplies safely past the uncertain roads leading to the north end of the city, but to transport people beyond the uncertain attitudes and prejudices of their fellow man. The demolition crew was soon replaced by a film crew from the History Channel, whose documentary footage of the subsequent excavation is expected to air this September. That’s about the time construction on the Happenstance Landing at Keets Harbor is scheduled to be finished – the property line now 653 feet north of its original location.
– David Andrews

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