Adventures in Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels

Editor’s note: Today’s post is a joint effort from Allison and from a brand-new-to-the-Monster contributor, Corina! You can find out more about both of them on the contributors’ page or on their blogs!

 Just what are the Shanghai Tunnels?

Allison:   Farmers, lumberjacks, and other blue-collar workers in the 1800’s would come in from the surrounding communities to Portland, Oregon in order to spend their earnings in the many bars that filled downtown. Sometimes these men would find themselves victims of Shanghai, captured by the “Crimps” and sold off to serve on ships leaving port.

The stories of these Crimps often sound like tall-tales such as the group of men who accidentally drank formaldehyde rather than beer and were sold to the ship-captains as being “dead-drunk.” Names such as Joe “Bunco” Kelly and James Turk were well known to Into The Tunnelsbarkeeps, police, and the general public.

There is no debate that Shanghai ran rampant in Portland, for nearly 100 years. What does get debated some amount is the reality of the tunnels that run under the city. Some claim that the network of tunnels that are purported to be under the city are a myth, nothing more than basements, others say there was an extensive network of tunnels, stretching from the waterfront far into the city

There are many tours that will take you through the historically (and sometimes still) seedier parts of the city, including trips into the famed Shanghai tunnels.

Corina: On a trip to Portland in 2005, I discovered the Portland Shanghai Tunnels tour in a list of things to do in Portland. I made reservations and my daughter and I went along with the family of one of her Portland friends. We didn’t really have many expectations so perhaps that’s why we had such a great time. Since that visit, I have taken the tour an additional 3 or 4 times. Each time it is slightly different than the previous times.

I had not been on the tour since 2009 and really wanted to go again. I also wanted to meet Allison. Then one day, Diana mentioned that she was doing a full month of Halloween themed posts for October. That’s when the idea struck me. I could invite Allison to go on the tour with me and then we could write it up for Diana! I checked with both ladies and it was a go!

Allison: I’ve long been interested in this history, and have written papers and conducted some (above-ground) walking tours of my own that touch on some of this history, but for all my years in Oregon I hadn’t yet been on one of the underground tours. So when Corina suggested it I jumped at the chance!  I really had no idea what I was stepping into.

Corina:  I didn’t want to give Allison any ideas about what she might experience so I kept the narrative to a minimum before we took the tour. But now, I can tell her and you about my previous experiences.

On my first visit, it was definitely scary. It was very dark in the underground tunnels and it was very dusty and the ground was uneven. It was also drafty, bordering on cold. Our tour guide was the guy that discovered the tunnels as a child and has taken on the job of preserving them and and the stories underneath the tunnels. There was a general eerie feeling down there, even the big hulky guys seemed to be a little freaked. When my daughter developed her film, there were orbs in several frames. We sent them in to Michael at the Shanghai Tunnels tour office and he said he thought we had caught some ghosts on film. It was definitely spooky.

When I moved to Portland in 2008, my son and I went on the tour. That time there were some flashlights in the group so there was a little more light. That was also the time when I smelled something sweet in one of the rooms. My son also felt a blast of cold that I did not even though we were standing right next to each other. Definitely spooky that time, too.

On another visit with my sister and daughter, I felt some kind of presence that I can’t explain. It was just a feeling that there was something unseen with the group of us as we wandered through the tunnels. Then, I smelled flowers. Three separate times and places I could smell flowers, different flowers. When the tour was over, as we were walking up the staircase to the street level, Michael, the tour guide asked if anyone had smelled anything or felt anything or seen anything. He said if we had, come up and tell him quietly so others would not hear or be influenced. I went up and told him the three scents and the rooms in which I smelled them and he said I was spot on. Those are the scents that have been associated with those specific areas. My sister and daughter also had experiences down there on that visit.

When Allison and I went on the tour, it was probably the least spooky visit I had made down into the underground. For one thing, everyone had a flashlight. Also, the ground has been level and the big rocks and pieces of glass have been hauled out. There was also a room where there were old artifacts, including an antique baby carriage and some antique toys. That whole area is gone…or better yet it has been cleared out. I was sorry to see that because I think that when they were there, it really added to the experience and the spooky feeling. I also feel that during the last time we didn’t get to explore or visit as much of the area as in previous visits.Getting ready to explore the Tunnels

Allison:  Because I’ve been buried in the history for so long I didn’t get to hear much in the way of new stories, but there is something powerful about being in the places where the history took place.  Standing in these dark, stale-aired, tunnels and imagining what it would have been like to wake up from a night on the town to be in this unknown place — perhaps with the foreboding knowledge that you would soon be sold off to have to work on a boat, likely never to see your home and family again. It was the kind of place that my writer-brain ran wild with, wondering at who had passed through this place before, what it had been like for them, and what came of their lives after.  I think I might go on one of the tours again at some point – as is the case with many things, the guide you have really shapes the tour, so another guide would be a whole other experience.

Corina: It was rather a disappointing visit, even though others in the group had felt and heard things and we had some significant drafts. Then, just as I was thinking that, something happened to me. I was standing up with nothing and no one but a brick wall behind me and no one next to me for several feet, I did feel a hand grab onto my left elbow. It was a cold hand with a firm hold. It didn’t pull me or push me. It just held on to me long enough for me to look around me and behind me and figure out that there was no one there that could have put their hand on me. And then the hand let go of me!

Other visitors throughout the years have reported seeing a woman standing next to a baby carriage crying. They’ve seen her and heard her. I haven’t but on previous visits I have felt something unsettling in the area with the baby carriage. Other visitors have also reported being scratched, pushed, shoved. I haven’t been and I haven’t seen anything like that during any of my visits but I won’t say that I do not believe it.

Allison: I’m a pretty skeptical person when it comes to ghost-encounters – not that I don’t believe they exist, just that I often feel there is a rational reason behind the encounters.  However, I did try to let go of some of this because I wanted to be open to experiences that might happen.  The only thing that I felt that could, I think, be counted as an other-worldly encounter was a passing sensation of a floral scent at one point. It was much stronger than I would expect from something seeping through the floor from the bar above, and I doubted it came from anyone else on the tour (as we’d been together for some time in close quarters already, I’d imagine I would have smelled it!)

Corina: For those who would like to get a glimpse of what the tour is like, here is a link that will take you to a page with several videos. I would skip the first one, labeled Video #1, but the others are good. The videos are a tour given by Michael who discovered the tunnels and keeps the history alive. It’s about the same tour I have been on previously.



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    1. From my research and understanding they have served many uses. Some are simply basements, but some have certainly used for things such as opium dens, and to hold people for shanghai. The reality of the Shanghai problem in Portland is well documented – what is generally up for debate is if there was actually such an extensive network of tunnels… I believe it’s likely that there were some, but not to quite the extent that groups like the one running this tour tend to claim.

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