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The Shanghai Tunnels of Portland

Updated on September 13, 2014

The Unheavenly City - Portland's Seedy Past

Today, Portland is widely known as "the City of Roses". But from 1850 through 1941, Portland was also called "the Unheavenly City", due to the widespread practice of shanghaiing.

Groups of tunnels and storage areas were built under the Old Town and central section of Portland, commonly used to move and store goods delivered from the docks on the Willamette river. These tunnels became crucial to the crimps. In Portland, a unique practice involved what was known as a dead fall: a trap door in the floor of a bar or saloon that was used to drop unsuspecting victims into the underground tunnels.

Estimates say that during the height of shanghaiing, a minimum of 1500 men were taken each year from the Portland waterfront. Some "bodies" were sold at the price of $50. Men would be held in cells before being taken underground to the docks. At times their shoes would be removed and broken glass sprinkled on the dirt floors, to hinder any attempts at escape.

During the era of Prohibiion, saloons found ways to thrive in the "Shanghai tunnels", making it that much easier for crimps, as well as white slavers, to grab men and women. Many men found themselves waking up aboard ships bound for Asia.


What Is It?

The practice of forcefully conscripting sailors by kidnapping, intimidation, trickery, or violence is known as shanghaiing. The term was coined in the late 1800s, and based upon the name of the seaport of Shanghai in eastern China.

The difference between what is known as a press gang and shanghaiing is that press gangs were comprised of those who were pressed into service for Great Britain's Royal Navy and those men who were shanghai'd were usually forced to serve aboard American merchant ships.

A person who engaged in the act of shanghaiing was known as a crimp. These criminals took advantage of the poor economic conditions and lack of law enforcement and turned shanghaiing into a flourishing practice. Port cities on the West Coast, such as San Francisco, Portland, Astoria, Seattle and Port Townsend and New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore on the East Coast were particular hot beds for shanghaiing.

During this era, the California Gold Rush was seeing ships empty of able-bodied men who were flocking to strike it rich in California. Boarding masters, who were in charge of finding crews for the merchant ships, were paid "by the body". The more men packed into the ship's crew, the better the pay.

The most common way to shanghai a victim was to render him unconscious and forge his signature on the ship's articles. Other ways could be trickery, intimidation, and violence.

Once a man was signed aboard a ship as a sailor it was illegal for him to disembark until the voyage's end. Otherwise he would face imprisonment. It wasn't until the Maguire Act of 1895 and the White Act of 1898, which weakened the profiteering of shanghaiing, followed by the Seamen's Act of 1915, that shanghaiing was finally outlawed. Crimping became a federal crime and the use of new steam-powered vessels decreased the demand for labor.

Tunnel images courtesy Cascade Geographic Society
Tunnel images courtesy Cascade Geographic Society

The Shangahi Tunnels

The Shanghai tunnels run nearly the length of the Portland waterfront; from what was is presently today's Old Town and Chinatown, under the Skidmore Fountain, through to the "South End", presently the southwest downtown area of Portland.

Some experts disagree that the Shanghai tunnels were ever used for the practice, saying that it wasn't until the 1970s that the "dark past" became linked to the series of catacombs and tunnels. Those that believe otherwise say that politics are trying to cover up the dark past of Portland.

Today, the Cascade Geographic Society gives tours to those willing to brave the underground and see the Shanghai tunnels for themselves.

You Tell Us!

Would you take the Shanghai Tunnels tour?

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© 2011 missbat

Watch Out For Trapdoors!

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    • girlfriendfactory profile image

      girlfriendfactory 3 years ago

      Wow! What an interesting bit of history. I have never heard of this practice before, but I've never lived on the coast while learning history either. So fascinating!! Thanks for sharing!

    • JoyfulReviewer profile image

      JoyfulReviewer 5 years ago

      Congratulations on your lens being included on the "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" monsterboard!

    • yayas profile image

      yayas 5 years ago

      I never heard of the tunnels before, but it certainly explains a lotta' the stories I've heard 'bout people who were kidnapped in the past.

    • LotusLandry profile image

      LotusLandry 5 years ago from Southern California

      There is a Portland Noir book with info about the tunnels.

      (from another Oregon lens maker)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Stepping over the trapdoor to give this fun Halloween lens a spooky little blessing from a Squid Angel.