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Portland's Dark Past: Shanghai Tunnels of Portland

1900s | August 9, 2018

A room in one of the hidden in Portland, Oregon

Beneath the streets of Portland, Oregon, there is a series of hidden tunnels. These 150-plus year old tunnels connected the basements and cellars of several of the city’s oldest establishments, primarily hotels, saloons, and taverns. Although some claimed the tunnels were designed to transport goods and products from cargo ships in the port into the city proper, and to transfer goods more easily between businesses, the tunnel system had a much more sinister use. In the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, the city of Portland, Oregon, earned a reputation for being the Shanghai Capital of the World…thanks, in part, to the Shanghai Tunnels.

Unsuspected Men Were Commonly “Shanghaied”

During the golden age of sailing, Portland, Oregon, was a small town with a big port. Sailing ships from all across the Pacific Ocean docked in Portland to unload cargo or enjoy a night on the town.

A former saloon and hiring hall for sailors; shanghaiing possibly took place here.

Being a sailor was hard and dangerous work and sea captains found they needed to take on additional men from time to time to replace the ones who were lost at sea, died of injury or disease, or who abandoned ship. To fill these empty positions, captains often resorted to “shanghaiing” new recruits.

Shanghaiers infiltrated the taverns and saloons of Portland, including the Snug Harbor Saloon, the Valhalla Saloon, and Erickson’s Tavern, looking for able-bodied young men, targeting cowboys, loggers, farmers, and sheepherders. A man alone in the bar was an easy target. One of the Shanghaiers would slip a drug into his drink or invite him to the back room for a card game. Then, quick as a wink, the victim was dropped into one of the conveniently placed Shanghai Tunnels and whisked away, unconscious, to the docks.

The Shanghai Victims Were Sold and Forced to Work on Sailing Ships

Sea captains paid the Shanghai gangs upwards of $50 per man…a tidy sum in those days. When the unsuspecting victim regained consciousness hours later, he would find himself on a sailing ship hours away from Portland. At the mercy of the ship’s captain, the victim was told that he would only be given food and water if he put in a hard day’s work on the boat.

Many victims eventually made their way back to Portland, to the relief of their families, but it often took years before they were able to return. Portland was considered one of the most dangerous places in the world because of its robust Shanghai trade.

The Shanghai Tunnels Were Well-Equipped for the Job of Kidnapping

Within Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels, which wind their way through downtown toward the port, there are several small, locked rooms that served as holding cells for the Shanghai victims. Shanghaied men were kept confined to these cells until they could be sold to sea captains, and many times they were drugged and beaten to prevent their escape.

Hidden trap-doors that led into the Shanghai Tunnels were later found all around Portland…in the streets and alleyways, as well as in taverns and hotels. The Shanghai gangs could wait for their next victim and…in the blink of an eye…they would disappear into the tunnels.

The Shanghai Tunnels were actually built after Portland's great flood of 1894.

Women Were Shanghaied, Too

Shanghaiing wasn’t just reserved for men and wasn’t just a way for ship captains to fill their crew. Women were commonly shanghaied off the streets of Portland for more nefarious reasons. Unsuspecting women…barflies and women of ill-repute, as well as innocent citizens…were plucked off the streets and sold. Many were sold to sea captains who were looking for female companionship on their long voyages. Others were sold to brothels and prostitution rings.

Unlike some of the shanghaied men, the majority of shanghaied women were never heard from again. By some estimates, thousands of men and women were victims of shanghaiing in Portland in the span of about eighty years.

The Shanghai Tunnels Still Exist…You Can See Them For Yourself

Many of the Shanghai Tunnels in Portland are still intact. New owners of some of Portland’s older businesses have even reported finding secret passageways and hidden doors when doing renovations. Portions of the Shanghai Tunnels are open to tour groups who are interested in learning about Portland’s dark past or who are hoping to see a ghost of a Shanghai victim that some claim haunts the tunnels.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.