Urban Legends: The Legendary Shanghai Tunnels of Portland, Oregon

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Featured Haunted Places Horror Mystery and Lore

The city of Portland, Oregon is known in modern times as America’s most “livable cities,” but it wasn’t all too long ago that the seedy underbelly cause it to be one of the most dangerous port cities on the west coast—possibly even the entire world. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the ports of Portland saw all of the criminal traffic that filtered through from the ships that docked with supplies—every time a new ship hailed the arrival of the opportunity to make money. Drinking, prostitution, and general criminal activity reigned supreme due to this exceptionally active port.

The city of Portland, Oregon is known in modern times as America’s most “livable cities,” but it wasn’t all too long ago that the seedy underbelly cause it to be one of the most dangerous port cities on the west coast—possibly even the entire world. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the ports of Portland saw all of the criminal traffic that filtered through from the ships that docked with supplies—every time a new ship hailed the arrival of the opportunity to make money. Drinking, prostitution, and general criminal activity reigned supreme due to this exceptionally active port.

The Shanghai Tunnels in Portland are talked about all over the world—they’re often said to be one of the most haunted places in all of America—and their dark, creepy nature draws in the skeptics and phobophiles (someone who loves dark, nightmarish, and macabre things) alike. The tunnels are located under the streets of the old town and the tunnels were in constant use for nearly a century, between 1850 and 1941 with illegal activity including human trafficking and prostitution. So many people died in these cheerless, filthy tunnels which visitors believe have left the ghosts of their tormented spirits behind. Nowadays, tourists are led through these dreary tunnels; many investigating the possibility of hauntings, where they hear disembodied voices, moaning, and screaming.

The Shanghai Tunnels of Portland

Downtown Portland has more of a draw than the simple shops and restaurants that tourists tend to enjoy visiting, in fact, there is something that lies just below their feet that they might not even be completely aware of. The 150-year-old tunnels that connect the basements of the city’s oldest buildings to the Willamette River and Portland’s own Chinatown are known across the world, but at the same time, there is a mystery and ambiguity to them. It’s said that the tunnels were originally built by Chinese workers during the time when Chinatown was the center for trade business. They were designed for transporting goods from cargo ships to the inner city so that the crews of the ships could avoid the hassles of traffic within the inner-city—this was excellent for the businesses of Portland because many of them used their basements to store their goods, which meant their deliveries would be sent directly to their storage space.

The Criminal Underground

Shanghaied Sailors

Once a small town, the port of Portland was quite large and was able to host several ships—these ships would have sailed for long periods of time to cross the Pacific Ocean before they would be able to unload in Portland. This long travel time meant that they had quite a bit less downtime after their months at sea and would spend most of their time in bars and saloons, drinking or fighting. Some of them took this downtime as an opportunity to abandon their career at sea, because of their increased fear of death by disease or injury. This abandonment of their post meant that ship captains would be left with a post unmanned and an inability to leave port without filling this position—the shadier of these captains would use crooked tactics to “shanghai” replacement sailors, capturing them through the tunnels and paying $50 a head for each man.

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The way it was made possible, is that any man looking to make a quick buck would watch men who were drinking alone, then creep into drug their drinks—after the lone-drinker was sufficiently drugged or unconscious, they would be abducted and carried through the series of tunnels that led to the waterfront. These poor unsuspecting men would awake once they were at sea, with no way to escape and having been sold to the ship’s captain as slave labor—the only choices they had were to work or die of starvation. While it may seem as if it’s no more than a cautionary tale, but these stories are backed up by real evidence and are trusted as fact.

Cannibalism

There have also been some incredible tales regarding the shanghaied victims—disturbing tales of ship crews eating some of them—with trapdoors and pits within the tunnels filled with corpses. There is particular reference to the local legend of Bunko Kelly, the Kidnapping King of Portland, as being the first local reference to the plague of cannibalism.

Human Trafficking and Prostitution

Eventually, men traveling alone became wary of Shanghaiers and as a consequence became more difficult to abduct—instead these Shanghaiers began kidnapping women instead, since solo women who frequented drinking establishments were easy prey. Many such women had trapdoors opened out from under them and they would fall into the tunnels without any possibility of getting back out. These women were abducted into prostitution rings and ended up being held as groups in cages over long periods of time, which gave them enough time to secure buyers outside of Portland.

The Mob and Prohibition

During the days of prohibition, the Shanghai tunnels became an underground expressway—they would be used to transport shipments of liquor and spirits from ships on the Willamette River to bars, hotels, and taverns all over Portland. Bootleggers used the tunnels to conduct their illegal activities away from the eyes of police and prying eyes, but law enforcement would regularly raid bars making the day to day operations impossible for bar owners. In an effort to get around those difficulties, they would stash their liquor supply deep in the tunnels in order to avoid arrest for maintaining a supply of alcohol—this led to hidden doors being installed within bars so that when they were raided, there was an escape route until the police officers would leave the premises.

The Hauntings in the Tunnels

Unsurprisingly, these tunnels and their history of abduction, abuse, and corruption has caused them to be of huge interest to historians as well as the supernatural and paranormal investigators as well. To be honest, there is no better venue for ghosts than the musty, neglected, underground sites of this century-old criminal underground. The Northwest Paranormal Investigations teams have declared the Shanghai Tunnels to be the most haunted location in all of Oregon—and the Cascade Geographic Society regularly offers the “Shanghai Tunnels Ghost Tours,” as well as the “Heritage Tour.”

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First-Hand Experience

In 2013, Ghost Mine hosts Kim Lunman and Patrick Doyle decided to conduct a ghost hunt inside of the tunnels due to the sheer number of reports of paranormal activity. Many visitors have shared that while on tours they have experienced ghostly encounters both in and around the tunnels—it’s common for them to report the sounds of people crying, moaning, and screaming while in the tunnels, but there are also experiences from the locals. In the nearby tavern and pizzeria, there have been reports of hearing, seeing, and smelling odd things during their visit to the business.

Dark Dreary Tunnel
Photography by Casey Horner

Experiences of Claustrophobia in the Cinema

While these movies might not exactly be about Portland’s infamous Shanghai Tunnels, they are great horror movies that give us that claustrophobic feeling and send chills down our spines. We invite you to check them out and let us know what you think!

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