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Entryway into the Shanghai Tunnels
Photo: Dmae Roberts

Many cities have underground tunnels long-abandoned and unused. The "Shanghai Tunnels" underneath Portland, Ore., are getting a reputation around the country for its historic and ghostly tours. Producer Dmae Roberts has lived In Portland for 12 years and had heard of the tunnels where sailors where Shanghaied, but didn't know there were tours until she read about it in Parade Magazine. She decided to go on the tour....

Shanghai-ed In Portland

By Dmae Roberts 11/08/2002

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I'm a long-time "X-Files" fan, and going into an underground tunnel conjures up images of cold, smelly, skanky sewers filled with monsters ready to jump out and devour your liver -- or something. So, with some dread and anxiety, I venture to old Chinatown in downtown Portland to go underground.

(sound: rave pop music in a bar)
I arrive at the appointed meeting place: Hobo's Restaurant, an upscale restaurant with a really full and fantastic looking bar. I order a virgin sea breeze just in time to see a lovely transvestite stroll by. God, I'd kill for those hips. Then, I turn to see middle-aged -- obviously straight -- couples in parkas and sneakers, entering bewildered. A short man with shoulder-length hair starts rounding up people. I assume that's Michael Jones, our tour guide from the Cascades Geographical Society. We're about to find out how men were snatched from saloons and held underground before being thrown on boats to work for free, until they ended up in Shanghai.
(sound: outside street traffic)
A group of seven of us follows Michael outside to hover around a metal door in the sidewalk. Michael opens it up and tells us to walk in.
(sound: clanging of doors opening, walking down stairs)
Everyone decides to let the woman with the mic -- that's me -- walk down the wooden steps first. I'm really wishing my sea breeze had been real. It's dark, but i venture forth, one shaky step at a time....
Michael: "You go right to that curtain and stop."

Woman:"Right to the -- what curtain? OK."

A woman behind me, Mickey, can't see the curtain either. Smells funny down here. More than a dusty basement smell, and moldy, hot -- not cold. I hear water dripping. Could there really be flesh-eating creatures down here? Tour guide Michael closes the doors to the outside world. We are plunged into total blackness.
(sound: door closes)

Michael: "OK, use your flashlights from this point on."

Everyone grabs the flashlights. Michael steers us through a cramped basement of stone, mortar and brick. Overhead, huge wooden beams -- close enough even for five-foot-four me to bump my head.

Michael: "OK, follow me this way."

We walk through a tunnel, skirting around huge pipes. Above us, we hear people walking and talking in Hobo's Restaurant.

Michael: "Now, when we started out 2 years ago, we were crawling through here. Those pipes, which are to the sprinkler system, were laying on rubble. That's all been dug out. And, stay close to the pipe -- it's not as muddy."

Water drips into a bucket, but the ground is still muddy. Claustrophobia starts to set in. God, I hope there aren't any rats or bats in here. I tell myself the tour is only an hour, so keep breathing -- then, Michael tells us to turn off our flashlights! Is he nuts?!

Michael: "OK, lights out. Where you're standing were two cells -- one here, and one here."

Michael turns on his fluorescent lamp to reveal a small cell where "shanghai-ed" men were held before being forced to work on ships for no pay. shangahai-ing started in 1850 and fizzled out by 1941, the start of World War II.

Michael: "Now, the first thing the shanghai-ers would do when they grabbed you, was take your shoes, because they broke glass and spread it throughout the underground, so if you escaped, you couldn't run too fast or too far."

I look at 20 or 30 pairs of old boots strewn on the floor. I imagine Having a drink at Hobo's Bar and then suddenly falling through a trap Door -- yes, there really were trap doors -- and ending up a prisoner in this dark dirty hole.

Michael: "They would collect their victims from places of vice: the saloons, the bordellos, the opium dens, the gambling parlors. These were the places where they got their victims. They would grab 'em, lock 'em up in holding cells that were located underground -- they made sure they had an able-bodied crew available for the sea captains 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No other city was like this."

Portland -- my Portland -- was the shanghai capitol of the world! I'm stunned to find there were other underground tunnels in parts of Oregon, now upper-class suburban towns. City officials knew but turned a blind eye because it was a moneymaker. Never mind that men were dying from the knockout drops used to kidnap them. One time, a group of sailors thought they found a stash of whiskey barrels hidden in a basement of snug harbor bar.

Michael: "Pretty soon, there's over 30 people in the underground, drinking. Now, a short time later, one of the shanghai-ers walked by -- Jooseph Bunkle Kelly -- and he looked down and he saw all these passed out men and began counting heads. And, when he got to 35, he stopped. No one was breathing; everyone was dead. And then, he realized what had happened. They were not in the underground of the snug harbor -- they were actually in the underground of the mortuary next door, and they had been drinking embalming fluid."

Victorian Baby Carriage
Photo: Dmae Roberts
Michael says the shanghai-ers sold the dead men anyway and raised the Price, saying it cost more to get the men this dead drunk. The same way men were kidnapped, so were women for the white slave industry.

Mickey: "Look at that: A baby buggy, do you think? "


Mickey and her friend are drawn to a Victorian baby buggy amidst hundreds of wooden chairs piled in from past saloons and brothels.

Michael: "Women were grabbed by white slavers in other cities, brought to Portland, and sold into prostitution. And, they generally died in prostitution. There are no reports that I can find where people escape this way of life."

Michael says the buggy is a reminder that babies born to prostitute mothers were sold or given away.

Michael: "Now, on five different tours, people in this section of the underground claim that they looked over here while they were leaving and there was a woman kneeling by the baby buggy, crying, pleading with someone to help her find her baby. They turn to get someone's attention, and when they looked back, there was no one there."

I turn to Mickey, standing next to me. We look at all the shadows around us: no woman crying out for her baby here. But there's a different kind of ghost: a feeling of suffering and tragedy from long ago. The walls start closing in...Micky says it all in one word:

Mickey: "Claustrophobic. I'd like to kinda do some checking myself to see how accurate it all is. It seems so unbelievable."

We're all starting to feel weighed down with the stories. It's unbelievably hot. We hear footsteps and laughter above us, the sound of a dishwasher -- all that life above us, and we're quiet down here in the underground. We ascend into bright sunny Portland. Another group awaits the next tour. Michael says people are curious about the history, but many are actually trying to find long-lost family members who were shanghaied.

Mike: "One lady told me the story about her grandfather was looking for his son -- he vanished when he was 17 years old. He was in the army, stationed at Fort Vancouver. He came down here was, he vanished, and his entire life he looked for him -- and never gave up hoping he could find him. Finally, he knew what happened to him."

Portland is beautiful up here, but how little I knew of my own city's seamy past. And, I wonder, how many other cities have undergrounds where the only real monster is its horrible history.

I'm Dmae Roberts for The Savvy Traveler.

This feature comes from HearingVoices.com, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Savvy Resources:

Shanghai Tunnel Tours: http://northwestparanormal.freehomepage.com/custom2.html

The Secret of the Tunnels: http://members.tripod.com/cgs-mthood/shanghai_tunnels.htm

Seattle Times story about the Shanghai Tunnels: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/travel/134289796_portland29.html

Portland's Shanghai tunnels --- StarNet Destinations (Pictures, Map, Reservations Info, History, etc.): http://www.peachin.com/azstarnet/portland2002.htm

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