The city of Portland, Oregon, in the United States was in the 19th century a major, bustling port town, where ships laden with wheat would make a stop along the Willamette River before continuing out over the sea towards such exotic destinations as Asia and Europe. To cater to all of the crews passing through the town blossomed, but it also had a seedy underside, with brothels, gambling dens, and also secret bars called speakeasies during Prohibition. In addition to being a major export hub, Portland began to earn itself a reputation as one of the most dangerous ports in the country, eventually earning itself the nickname “The Forbidden City of the West,” where all manner of scum and villains went about their nefarious business. It was perhaps this notorious reputation as a den of sin and crime that a rather spooky legend would be born, telling of a dank network of tunnels sprawled down in the earth, through which people would be whisked off to a fate worse than death.
Down under the city were said to be various tunnels and rooms meandering out through the gloom, mostly used at first for holding shipments to keep them out of the rain and to provide a direct link between various storerooms and the waterfront, and many establishments above ground had interconnecting basements that met up with the docks, forming a complex of tunnels. With such an eerie network of gloomy passageways away from prying eyes it was only a matter of time before the tunnels were being used for more sinister purposes, and it is said that many of the city’s gambling dens were located down in the dim confines of these tunnels. Many of the tunnels supposedly congregate around the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood, and Portland historian Barney Blalock has said of these mysterious tunnels:
They were built by Chinese back in the days when Chinatown was the center of gang activity related to the different tongs. The gambling dens, brothels, and opium parlors of Chinatown were connected to separate labyrinths, with steel doors, trap doors leading to secret stairways, and tunnels for escape into far alleyways. These were security measures designed for dealing with both rival tongs and police raids.
According to the stories, other than for hiding the dregs of society, these tunnels, collectively called The Old Portland Underground, were also used for other even more malevolent purposes, shrouding the tunnels in a cloak of fear and grim folklore. These particular tales have to do with a shady practice of the area that was commonly known as “shanghaiing,” which entails the kidnapping of people for the purpose of later selling them as clandestine slaves. The main destination for these poor souls was as manual labor aboard shorthanded vessels about to begin their long voyages, but the practice extended to other dealings as well, and there is all manner of horror stories of women being shanghaied to be sold into sexual slavery or even people being sold to starving crews as food.
In the case of Portland’s tunnels, it was widely believed that the tunnels were extended, with many of them coming up into the various taverns, restaurants, bars, and brothels and fanning out into a labyrinthine system. Here unsuspecting victims would be drugged and whisked away into the inky depths of the catacombs, or in some cases find themselves dropping through a trapdoor to the gloom below, where they would be captured and taken to a life of hardship and certain death. Since many of those targeted were transients and people just passing through on their journeys, no one would miss them and they would just become more of the many who disappeared without a trace along their routes. There were supposedly thousands of people who met their fate this way through Portland’s network of subterranean tunnels, and there were even alleged maps that showed the way from these entry points to the waiting docks and their slave masters, kept in makeshift cells or even crates to await their fates. The practice was supposedly so widespread in Portland that the tunnel system began to earn itself a new nickname as “The Shanghai Tunnels,” and it kept the city in the grip of fear.
It is all rather frightening and ominous, and sounds like it must surely be an urban legend, so how true is any of this? Well, we do know that the basements and at least some tunnels exist there under Portland, and although many have long since collapsed or been flooded by rising waters some of them can still be accessed or even toured today. We also know that the practice of shanghaiing did in fact exist during the era in ports throughout the West Coast. What isn’t apparent is whether this ever really happened in Portland’s tunnels or not to the extent that it is claimed, if at all. It also isn’t known if the tunnels were ever quite as extensive and interconnected as is claimed in these stories, or whether they really meandered all under the city to emerge within bars and restaurants for the purpose of shanghaiing. Even the ones available for viewing are more extensive basements leading from warehouses to the docks.
In the end it is unknown of there was ever really a labyrinth of intertwined tunnels here extending throughout the city as told in the lore, or if they were ever used for the grim practice of shanghaiing. However, the stories remain entrenched within the lore and legends of the city of Portland, and a spooky look into its darker history.