In the late 1850s, when Portland’s bars stretched entire city blocks and the waterfront was a bustling hub for international maritime trade, a lonely logger might get more than he bargained for at his local tavern — like a one-way trip to Asia. Called “shanghaiing” or “crimping,” the practice of kidnapping men and selling them as slaves to ship captains in need of crew was common during Portland’s industrial heyday.
The legend of the Shanghai Tunnels
Beneath Old Town Chinatown (Portland’s original downtown) in the so-called Shanghai Tunnels, truth starts to mingle with myth. Local lore has it that a labyrinth of interconnected basements, makeshift rooms and low-ceilinged tunnels ran all the way to the waterfront, making it easy to sneak illegal goods (including shanghaied victims) between shore and ship. Some say the tunnels were also used as secret passageways to underground brothels, opium dens and gambling houses, or as temporary prisons for kidnapped men and women.
It’s the stuff of terrifying legend, filled with stories of forced prostitution, murder, ruined lives and an underground catacomb that facilitated it all. How much of the tales are true is hotly debated, since many of the tunnels are currently inaccessible or collapsed, and little to no archaeological evidence exists to support these stories (except for what tours present as “real artifacts,” which could have been easily purchased at thrift shops). You can decide for yourself by delving into the rich oral history of Portland’s shady underbelly on a Shanghai Tunnel walking tour.
Shanghai Tunnel walking tours
Two companies offer guided tours: Portland Walking Tours promises “true, inside stories behind ‘crimping'” and “other screwed up and scandalous things” on its “Underground Portland” tour. The Cascade Geographic Society is run by self-proclaimed tunnel historian Michael P. Jones, whose unsubstantiated claims of new-found evidence of the tunnels’ bawdy history has raised many a skeptical eyebrow among local historians and scholars. Each tour begins with an above-ground stroll and history lesson of the area before descending into the dust below street level, where your guide will spin yarns of bawdy, criminal activity.
Despite tales of tunnels that stretch for miles, the tours don’t extend much farther than the musty, brick-laden basements beneath their starting points. Short passageways propped up by cracking wood planks come to an abrupt stop, but through a couple of iron-barred portholes, you can see long stretches of cobwebbed paths extending into the darkness beneath the city. From there, your imagination takes over, and it’s not hard to envision illegal gambling dens, criminals dropping through a hidden trapdoor to dodge the law, or any number of illicit deeds.
True or not, touring the tunnels always makes for a great story. And no matter what you conclude, you can quench your thirst post-tour at Hobo’s or grab a slice at Old Town Pizza, where you might take a seat next to resident ghost “Nina” — but that’s another story.