Why We RecommendThe Old Portland Underground, better known locally as the Shanghai Tunnels, is a group of passages in Portland, Oregon, United States, mainly underneath the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood and connecting to the main business section. The tunnels connected the basements of many hotels and taverns to the waterfront of the Willamette River. They were originally built to move goods from the ships docked on the Willamette to the basement storage areas, allowing businesses to avoid streetcar and train traffic on the streets when delivering their goods.
In the late 19th century, when Portland Chinatown was the center of gang activity, the so-called Shanghai underground tunnels were built to move merchandise from the waterside docks to the city. Brothels, gambling, and opium dens were connected to those labyrinths via steel doors and trap passes, which led to secret stairways and tunnels, and further to the waterfront of the Willamette River.
Shanghai Tunnels were heavily used by hired thugs, or "boarding masters" to catch and deliver healthy young men to ships to work there 24/7 without any pay. Boarding masters kidnaped thousands of people from bars and brothels. The victims were knocked out with alcohol or drugs, dropped through trap doors, held in underground cells, and later transported to the ships, where they woke up with no freedom, identity, and with a very vague chance of survival. The human trafficking practice was called “shanghaiing”, and Portland was a recognized leader in this form of slavery.
The tunnels were locked in 1941, but now they are being gradually re-opened for visitors. A tour to Shanghai Tunnels starts at the steep staircase leading down to a cellar of the former Old North End hotel. Armed with flashlights, you descend the stairs and plunge into the 1870s – the smell, the darkness, the artifacts, and occasional ghosts remind the visitors of the old time that was. The tour is intriguing, often shocking and sometimes scary, but extremely entertaining from the beginning and until the end.
The entertainment does not take away from the educational part of the tour. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides would share the facts seasoned with interesting stories, and answer all your questions.
At that, while the tour would help you understand and clear up some parts of the Portland history, you are likely to end up with new questions and issues you may want to explore. The tunnels are full of legends, which feed the imagination and drive further research into the Portland underground.
Trying (and failing) not to hit the head against low ceiling and whatever hangs from it, the visitors move from chamber to chamber re-living the first moments of slavery for those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (or maybe the moments of triumph of a Shanghaier enjoying a deal well struck). Whatever it is, the imagination has every chance to run wild and it is exactly what it does.