What a World

Portland’s Undergound Tunnels Are Relics of a Seedy Past

Portland was once the most dangerous port city in America. Nina Strochlic on the underground tunnels that live to tell the tale.

The Portland, Oregon, of 2013 may be a laid-back utopia that outsources artisanal coffee and fair-trade messenger bags, but the Portland of the late 1800s made its name in a very different trade. Long before hipsters took over the “City of Roses,” it was one of the most dangerous port towns in the country, with a brutal kidnapping epidemic that led to the nickname “Forbidden City of the West.”

For nearly 100 years—between the mid-1800s, past Prohibition, and up into the 1940s—an illicit flesh market funneled reportedly thousands of men and women to Pacific-bound ships to serve as crew members and prostitutes.

Widely-shared tales of “shanghaiing” tell of drunken patrons falling through trapped doors in seedy bars to wake up enslaved as seamen; men lured by prostitutes into underground holding cells where they’d remain until being sold to the next ship that docked in town; and women drugged and kept in solitary cells underground in conditions meant to break their will. The unscrupulous practice took its name from the destination many unfortunate victims found themselves en route to.

Legend has it that the seedy trade primarily operated through an underground labyrinth of tunnels connecting various establishments in Portland’s Chinatown and Old Town to the water.

But in the web of myths, rife with opium dens, kidnappers, and bootleggers, that paint a dark history of Portland’s underground tunnels, there’s little that can be known for certain. The practice of selling men to ship captains, known as shanghaiing or “crimping,” isn’t disputed, and there are a number of documented first-hand accounts (PDF) from its victims. The frequency with which this happened became such a problem in the area that in 1911, the president of the International Seamen’s Union of America testified to the House of Representatives: “I will state that there is one port on the Pacific coast that has always been known as the greatest crimping den in America. I refer to the port of Portland.” One especially gruesome legend tells of notorious kidnapper Joseph “Bunco” Kelly (PDF) selling a captain 24 new seamen who he posed as passed-out drunks, but who were actually dead. The kidnapping trade eventually died out after Congress launched a crackdown and demand diminished as steamboats replaced sailboats.

While there is plenty of evidence that Portland was once the country’s shanghai capital, the debate centers around how much of a role the tunnels played in the trade, or even the scale of the labyrinth under the city’s streets, since many have since been blocked off. This aspect of the city’s sordid history has caused a rift between historians, who maintain the tunnels were used for ferrying supplies and that there is no mention of their use for anything more illicit until the 1970s, and tour operators, who spread the passed-down folklore of the underground kidnapping operation.

The pro shanghai-by-tunnel’s most prominent defender is the creator of the Shanghai Tunnel Tours, Michael P. Jones, an outspoken proponent of the narrative who’s been leading tours since the 1990s. Jones has long asserted a narrative of the underground shanghaiing trade, recently opening up a previously closed section of tunnel, and preparing to release a book he says will support his claims once and for all.

Regardless of which version prevails as Portland’s true historical story, the “shanghai tunnels” attract thousands of tourists, inspire writers, and continue to make cameos on history and travel shows that can’t get enough of Portland’s seedy past. Besides, the city now known for its propensity for reusable bags and locally sourced produce could really use the edge of a mysterious and dangerous past.