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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.


  • One of many tunnels in Portland's underground network. these tunnels were built to move cargo, but they have become something of a tourist attraction and local legend.
  • Tourists view a create that was left in the tunnels. According to Geoff Wexler of the Oregon Historical Society, "serious historians" recognize "that the myth of the Shanghai Tunnels is simply that: a myth."

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, 

More likely, any acts of kidnapping that may have occurred in Portland occurred in taverns and city streets. Some may have been abducted after becoming completely inebriated at one of the subterranean saloons, or perhaps these abductions were simply part of re-gathering crew members that hoped to stay in the city rather than returning to their ships. During the prohibition some of the saloons of the city moved underground, and operated as speakeasies within the tunnels. Like other underground spaces, there are also reports of women being kidnapped, attacked, and even sold into prostitution. Rumors of kidnappings, and actual reported disappearances of women and men alike led Portland to have a reputation as the most “dangerous port in the world." 

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.

“The Portland Underground FAQ.” (http://cgs­mthood.tripod.com/shanghai_tunnels_FAQ.htm) Last Accessed July 2016 Jung, Helen. “Portland’s Buried Truth.” The Oregonian, October 4, 2007 Mellema, Valerie. “Portland Underground: Shanghai Tunnels.” Legends of America (http://www.legendsofamerica.com/or­shanghai.html) Last Accessed July 2016