Every other month we try to take a trip to one of our favorite places; Portland, Oregon. It is a fascinating city filled with craft breweries, coffee shops, and an abundance of food carts. There are always new things to experiences, and some favorites which keep us coming back (i.e. Voodoo Doughnuts!!). Our latest adventure was exploring the Portland Underground, aka the Shanghai Tunnels.
The Portland Underground Tunnels are reminiscent of a dark part of Portland’s history; full of shanghaiing, murder and prostitution. Portland was an important destination, as the largest port town on the Columbia River and in the Pacific Northwest.
History of Shanghaiing
Miles of underground tunnels were created under Downtown Portland and Chinatown with the intention of easily transporting goods from the port to shops. The tunnels became infamous however between 1850-1941 for transporting something even more valuable; men. The practice of “Shanghaiing” on the West Coast was most common in Portland. Shanghaiing was a form of kidnapping by using trickery or violence to enslave able-bodied men for work on merchant ships. Portland became infamous as a dangerous place to be out at night. However, that didn’t stop many men. After a hard day of working they would spend the evening imbibing at the many downtown bars. After they became intoxicated they were lured to dark alleys or rooms with chutes to the tunnels. Some were drugged and others were lured by prostitutes or false promises.
Not all the men who were bound for a life as an enslaved sailor were kidnapped. Crimping was the practice of opening a hotel or boardinghouse and taking in tenants who couldn’t pay so they would owe a debt. A “crimp” would then sell the men to pay off their debt; for many it was a debt that would never be payed off.
Joseph “Bunko” Kelly
One of the most infamous “crimps” resided in Portland, his name was Joseph Kelly. He didn’t become famous for selling able-bodied men (which he did do), he became infamous for his deviousness and resourcefulness. According to one legend, he sold 24 dying men after they broke into the mortuary basement and drank embalming fluid (not the bar’s basement with alcohol as they thought it was). As the men were dying he wrapped them up and told the buyer that they were drugged so they would be calm. After the ship had left port it was discovered that they had purchased dead men.
Another legend says that Kelly sold this Cigar Store Indian (below) to a merchant who thought he was buying an able bodied sailor (often called A.B’s). Kelly wrapped him up, said that the sailor was drugged and would wake soon and then he walked away with $50. The ship was far down the Columbia River heading to the Pacific Ocean when they realized that they had been tricked. Joseph Kelly eventually spent 13 years in an Oregon penitentiary for murder, got released, wrote a book and retired to California.
Prostitution in the Underground
Prostitutes were often utilized in the practice of Shanghaiing, as a lure. The women rarely chose prostitution- they were frequently enslaved by a pimp and forced into this life. The picture below is an accurate representation of what their dens commonly looked like. Portland has a long and dark history of sex trafficking which, sadly, is still quite prominent in the city today. Human trafficking is so common in Portland that the police department has recently created a Human Trafficking Unit to help combat it. The tour did a great job of talking about this ugly side of history. It’s not something pleasant to hear about, but it would be tragic to pretend like it didn’t exist and still isn’t an issue.
The Portland Underground is maintained by a nonprofit group, Cascade Geographic Society and tours are lead by volunteers. The tour leader asked in the beginning what kind of tour we would like, as they can focus it on the groups interests such as paranormal activity, history or minority groups hisory in the tunnels. Our tour chose a mix of paranormal activity and history. The paranormal activity part felt a little silly at times because I don’t believe in ghosts, but it was entertaining to hear the stories. The history part of it was amazing and I would love to do the tour again because there is so much information I forgot.
We arrived at Hobo’s restaurant about 45 minutes early and enjoyed a few drinks first. Because the tour group was so large it was split in two. Our group left 15 minutes later than planned, which was fine because it gave us time for another drink. You aren’t allowed to bring any beverages on the tour but drinking before the tour was fine. For more information I encourage you to check out this site, which includes rules and information on special tours such as their “Friday the 13th” tour. It truly was an amazing experience and I am surprised at how many locals we know who haven’t been to the Shanghai Tunnels. I would really encourage you to see this part of Portland’s history for yourself if you are in the area.
If You Go
Prices are $13 for the standard tour we took
Special tours are held around Halloween and on Friday the 13th’s
Grab a few drinks at Hobo’s while you wait
Its dark underground, but they gave us all flashlights
Have you visited the Shanghai Tunnels? Or any underground tour? Tells us about your experience in the comments below!
*This tour was not sponsored; all opinions are the writers own.