Portland's Strange Places: #1 – Shanghai Tunnels

 One of PDX's Shanghai Tunnels...weird indeed! Image Courtesy: pdxpeople.com

One of PDX's Shanghai Tunnels...weird indeed! Image Courtesy: pdxpeople.com

We have all heard the tagline “Keep Portland Weird.” No doubt this statement has been fueled by Portland's seemingly limitless creativity in everything from the arts to its bustling food scene. No doubt one of my favorite shows, Portlandia, has also been a major contributor. Yet Portland's famous, commanding label also gets its roots from strange elements from a long gone era...the hundred year span between the 1850's and 1941. Indeed, good ol' PDX was considered one of the most dangerous ports in the entire world during that period, earning the unofficial title of “Forbidden City of the West.” Kind of glad I grew up in the 1980's!

Shanghai Tunnels

In this first installment of a series on “Portland's Strange Places,” I'm focusing on the city's subterranean network of tunnels known as the “Shanghai Tunnels.” And while these tunnels that run all over beneath our city were created and used for legitimate purposes, including storing ship's supplies out of the rain and away from above traffic, many more scary and illegal deeds were done here, below ground.

 Can you imagine bunking down below the streets in a place like this? Image Courtesy: DeLoris Scherschligt

Can you imagine bunking down below the streets in a place like this? Image Courtesy: DeLoris Scherschligt

Referring to the capture and sale of people to ship captains in need of labor, the term “shanghaiing” has grown from long practice around the world. In Portland, legend says that some 3,000 people per year were captured, shuttled through the city's underground tunnels, and sold in this fashion during the 100 years noted above...hence the monicker “Shanghai Tunnels.” Women were also grabbed during this period and sold into prostitution. Further, during prohibition, many of Portland's bars simply moved underground into these spaces...which, in turn, made it that much easier for criminals to get their hands on you.

 A "deadfall" trap door can still be seen inside of Old Town Pizza in Portland. Image Courtesy: porltandofloregon.blogspot.com

A "deadfall" trap door can still be seen inside of Old Town Pizza in Portland. Image Courtesy: porltandofloregon.blogspot.com

Those unfortunate enough to be a target were said to be drugged with opiates, knocked unconscious or kidnapped while drunk. If not already down below, they were then dropped into the tunnels through trapdoors called “deadfalls,” some of which can still be found in many businesses and bars (what used to be saloons). Of course, most of these trapdoors are now covered up and no longer grant access. Further, many of the underground tunnels beneath the city's streets have been filled in through new construction and public works projects. That said, many tunnels still remain...and they are creepy indeed.

Having been a member of the Portland band scene in the 90's, I saw many different Shanghai Tunnel entrances and passages, often accessible through club and bar back rooms. There were even some “green rooms” in these areas where people hung out before and after gigs. Pretty interesting. Pretty weird. No doubt fun to explore for those not too faint of heart.

 If this once bricked-over passageway beneath our city doesn't give you the creeps, well, I'm not sure what will! Image Courtesy: Cascade Geographical Society

If this once bricked-over passageway beneath our city doesn't give you the creeps, well, I'm not sure what will! Image Courtesy: Cascade Geographical Society

Tunnel Tours

Operated by the Cascade Geographic Society (CGS), guided tours of Portland's infamous Shanghai Tunnels can be had. These tours are safe and educational...and nobody will seek nab you for ship duty or other forms of “white slavery.” The tours focus on a variety of things including the kidnapping and shanghai trade of people, white slavery, prohibition, the turn-of-the-century Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor movement. Further, some focus is given to the early history of the Chinese in our area along with the Japanese and the Gypsies. This 90-minute tour is well worth it and runs, at last check, $13 for an adult and $9 for children. Get tour details here. Enjoy! 

Dan Meyers