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 the open seas.
Editor’s note: Travel Portland acknowledges the inherent racism of the term “shanghai” to refer to the practice of kidnapping and enslaving laborers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We use the word here because it is the most widely searched term on the topic and we want to connect visitors with accurate information.
The Legend of the Shanghai Tunnels
Beneath Old Town Chinatown (Portland’s original downtown) in the so-called Shanghai Tunnels, the truth mingles with myth. Local lore has it that a labyrinth of interconnected basements, makeshift rooms and low-ceilinged tunnels ran 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 truth there is to the tales is hotly debated, since many of the tunnels are currently inaccessible or collapsed, and little to no archaeological evidence exists to support these stories.
Questions About the Shanghai Tunnels
Where does the term “shanghaied” come from?
When were the Shanghai Tunnels used?
Are the Shanghai Tunnels still used?
Shanghai Tunnel Walking Tour
For over two decades, enthusiasts were led on tours through the tunnels by the nonprofit Cascade Geographic Society. Sadly, due to the nonprofit’s founder Michael P. Jones’s death and restaurant closures in 2020, the tunnels were inaccessible for over two years, and only virtual tours were available.
However, in 2022, a longtime favorite pizzeria opened a section of the tunnels for guests. Located in what was once the lobby of the luxurious Merchant Hotel, Old Town Pizza & Brewing offers tours of the infamous tunnels below the historic building. The Merchant Hotel was built in 1880 and is reportedly one of the most haunted places in Portland. Learn more about Portland’s dark history and decide for yourself whether or not the legends are true on a Haunted Shanghai Tunnel Tour.
Despite tales of tunnels that stretch for miles, the tour doesn’t extend much farther than the shadowy basement beneath its starting point. Short brick-lined passageways come to an abrupt stop where 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 or grab a slice, where you might take a seat next to resident ghost “Nina” — but that’s another story.
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