Known today as the Portland Underground, this series of underground corridors and chambers below the Chinatown district of Portland were referred to as the "Shanghai Tunnels" owing to anti-Asian sentiment and stereotypes, and rumors of illicit activities. In reality, these tunnels were similar to other tunnels in growing cities, and were used to transport goods from the banks of the Willamette River to the downtown area. And similar to other underground spaces, they were also used for a number of other, more unscrupulous, activities such as gambling, bootlegging, drug use and prostitution. Despite their nickname, which was synonymous with kidnapping, there is no evidence of the tunnels being used for this purpose. That the nickname "Shanghai Tunnels" became accepted for so long demonstrates the prevalence and continuation of negative ethic stereotypes. Both their utility as a way to transport goods directly without the interruptions and blockages common on early city streets, and their mythology home to a underground world ruled by crime bosses and recent immigrants, are representative of the economic and ethnic history of Portland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Backstory and Context
Also called the catacombs and tombs of the city, the Shanghai Tunnels were a network of archways and passages accessed by secret trapdoors, which connected the basements of very well-known establishments in Portland’s Chinatown, Old Town, and Skidmore Fountain. Some of the venues included the Hobo's Restaurant (a Victorian “woman’s boarding house” formerly known as the Lasso Saloon that was involved in some of the illicit activities that took place in the tunnels), the Boiler Room (where one can see one of the trapdoors that were likely used to move cargo but gave credence to the idea that the tunnels may have been used to kidnap victims), and innumerable other saloons, brothels, gambling parlours, and opium dens. In doing so, these goods could be transported across the city without getting caught up in the traffic of the streetcars and automobiles.
The other, much shadier, side to the tunnels was the practice of “shanghaiing” and “white slavery” that allegedly took place in nineteenth and twentieth century Portland. This involved the kidnapping or employment under false pretences of able-bodied sailors, cowboys, ranch hands, railroad workers, and the homeless to be sold to sea captains. They were then forced to work aboard ships heading towards China and Japan in awful conditions, and without pay. According to mythology, so-called “deadfalls” were trap doors that would be used to drop the victims into the Portland Underground where they would be imprisoned in tiny brick or tin subterranean cells before being sold. While these reports are based more on myth than fact, many of the city’s police, politicians and businessmen were entangled in the illicit activities such as prostitution and the drug trade that took place in the tunnels,
While modern residents no longer believe that the tunnels are used for kidnapping, many uncritically accept wild speculation about dozens of kidnappings occurring each week in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today's rumors center on reports of the alleged supernatural
activities related to the tunnels. The “haunted”
tunnels have featured as the setting for a number of TV shows set in Portland,
such as Grimm. Today the tunnels can be accessed from a number of
locations, and visitors can receive guided tours run by the Cascade Geographic
Society around some of the most famous stretches.