You’re feeling pretty good, sipping on a frosty brew in Oldtown Portland, Oregon and suddenly, the floor beneath you disappears and you’re falling. When you wake up, you have no idea what has happened, or where you are. You have just been shanghaied.
Other than the nasty headache, most who call Portland their home would absolutely love if this mythical experience had actually happened from time to time just to add one more “weird” thing to the cities resume, but in reality, Shanghaiing is just a thing of legend, but that doesn’t make the thrill any less real.
The Shanghai Tunnels, as they are called, is a network of basements that in many cases used to be connected, running beneath the streets of Old Town Portland. This part of Portland, which today is home to a host of fine eateries and watering holes, is just a stone’s throw from the river, and in Portland’s not too distant past, these “tunnels” were quite useful in transporting goods to and from the port. But the intriguing part of the tunnels isn’t the business ventures; it’s the plethora of other pastimes that are rumored to have taken place there.
Today, most of these basements, fondly called the Shanghai Tunnels, are just storage or empty space beneath local businesses. Some sections are used in a local tour hosted by the company Portland Underground, and are often the destination of ghost hunters from around the country. But rewind a hundred years, and the tale of the Shanghai Tunnels transforms into seedy, spooky piece of Portland lore.
As the legend has it, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, able-bodied men, typically those who were working and living far from their families, men who would not be missed, were targeted in local bars. A man might be standing in the corner at the bar, having a few beers, when it happens. Perhaps throughout the night, he got drinks from a barmaid, just enough to make him let his guard down, or according to some rumors, the bartender might slip something into his drink.
At some point in his drunken delirium, the man finds himself standing in a corner of the bar where no one may notice if he suddenly disappears, somewhere out of sight, and then, he’s gone. The floor slips out from beneath his feet, via a trapdoor fondly termed a “deadfall,” and he finds himself in a barred holding cell.
When he wakes up the next morning, it’s already too late. He is on a ship bound for Asia (thus the term Shanghai) and unbeknownst to this poor fellow, he’s been sold to a sea captain desperate for crew by a Portland thug for a few cents, and he might not see his homeland again.
Another facet of the legend also tacks on the addition of sex trafficking and copious drug consumption committed in these same tunnels as women were kidnapped and kept beneath the city as prostitutes.
As magical, thrilling, and deliciously disturbing as the legend is, most historians agree that it isn’t true. Contrary to popular belief, there hasn’t been any evidence discovered to prove that these “tunnels,” beneath the streets of Portland were ever used for the practice of kidnapping men or women, for any purpose. But, don’t let the mythic status of Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels deter you from paying the legendary attraction a visit because the special underground tours will bring the legend alive, and who knows, maybe you’ll be a believer too.
Portland Underground Tours
Today, most of the Shanghai Tunnel “entrances” are sealed off and are just private storage spaces, but one section of the city’s basement is home to Portland Underground Tours. These fun and educational tours keep the legend alive with a walking tour of sections of the Shanghai Tunnels. The Portland Underground Tours are a popular destination for tourists and even ghost hunters visiting Portland. The site was also the location for a recent investigation by the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures.
Portland Underground Tours leave from beneath Hobo’s Restaurant in Oldtown. On the typical tour you’ll visit barred rooms that were rumored to be used for holding the enslaved men overnight before being hauled off to their ships. You’ll also see possible former opium dens, and brick archways now cemented over which, according to the tour, are old entrances to the tunnels. The tour guides will even point you to an ancient dusty pile of shoes claimed to have been left behind by the captors who removed them from their victims so that they couldn’t run away were they to wake during the night. According to the legend, the floors were also littered with broken glass so that if these soon-to-be slaves tried to escape, they would tear their feet up leaving a bloody trail behind for the captors to follow.
The owner of Portland Underground Tours, is also currently proposing to write a book about the tunnels, providing proof that they do indeed exist and validating the myth of shanghaiing in Portland. Even if the legend of the tunnels has been exaggerated, a visit to the Shanghai Tunnels is a great way to spend an exciting and spooky afternoon in Portland.
- Shanghai Tunnel Tours: Typical tours are offered at just $13 for adults and $8 for children and must be prearranged to accommodate for group sizes and timing. A few special tours are also available to up the spook factor on every Friday the 13th and the Saturday following, and throughout the month of October.
- The Shanghai Ethnic History Tour: This tour puts a special spin on the typical tour giving insight into the history of several cultures, the Chinese, Japanese, and Gypsy, and how their histories intertwine with the tunnels.
- The Shanghai Ghost Tour (also called the Paranormal Tour): This two-hour delight is $25 and begins above ground, taking you through specific areas rumored to be haunted in the Old North End of Portland, before heading underground for the Shanghai tour.
No matter the tour you choose, you’re sure to get a good dose of Portland history and local lore, and maybe a chill or two.
The Shanghai Tunnel Bar
If you don’t make it out to the tunnels, or you need a locale for your after tunnel party, keep the theme going at the Shanghai Tunnel Bar. Be careful not to confuse this popular Portland dive with the actual tunnels because it doesn’t have an entrance to any creepy crawl spaces or haunted holes, just good eats and tasty treats. The bar, which upstairs looks a like a typical small Portland joint, is famous for its big windowless basement where you’ll enjoy the company of Portlanders of all types while shooting pool or partaking in the pinball or arcade video games. The bar is known for good cheap drinks, pricier food that will beat your typical bar grub, and long lines to get a drink on Saturday nights.
Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels are certainly a legend worth visiting in the Rose City. Even if the rumors of secret slave ships and seedy practices never prove to be true, a tour through the tunnels is a great way to learn a little about the city and get your spook on too.