Shanghaied: How One Night in 19th Century Portland Could Lead to a Life at Sea
It may be hard to imagine when you’re standing at Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Downtown Portland, but beneath your feet runs a series of tunnels that carry the secrets of a darker period in our local history.
Before it was Waterfront Park, the wide and long swath of green that sits on top of the seawall on the West bank of the Willamette River, it was actually a freeway. And before that, it was a series of docks and warehouses, shanties and bars known equally for vice and commerce.
Back in those days, most of the commercial freight traveling in and out of Portland was loaded and unloaded along the western waterfront of the Willamette.
And because the merchants, traders, and business owners of downtown Portland wanted to avoid the hassle of dealing with surface foot, trolley, and wagon traffic when moving their goods in and out of downtown, a system of tunnels was constructed beneath a good portion of the fledgling city.
It was through this network of tunnels that most of the city’s freight moved, unseen. It was also in this network of tunnels that a good deal of the city’s illicit trade was conducted.
The Shanghai Tunnels of PDX
Imagine being a young log camp worker on a rare trip to Portland from the surrounding mountains in the 1890s. Imagine that when you arrived in town, you had a thirst for certain clichéd things and that whiskey featured prominently among them.
You find your way into a saloon in downtown Stumptown, and belly up to the bar for a few stiff belts. You order a drink. The next thing you know, you’re waking up in shackles several miles off the Pacific coast of Oregon on the first leg of a journey that may last the rest of your life.
You’ve been shanghaied, slipped the proverbial Mickey, dropped through a trapdoor into the Shanghai Tunnels, and whisked away to be sold into indentured slavery aboard a merchant ship.
The Speakeasy Era in Portland
Many years later, as Portland was coming into its own as the “Vice Capital of the West” under the leadership of local Mobster Jim Elkins, the tunnels beneath downtown were a natural site for the relocation of the city’s bars and nightclubs during the prohibition era.
Many of the former holding cells for would-be sailors and illicit opium dens that dotted the network of tunnels were cleaned out, expanded, redecorated, and re-opened to serve thirsty Portlanders who couldn’t get a drink above ground.
The Tourist Trade Evolves Around the Portland Tunnels
These days, there are a couple of tour companies that give visitors a taste of what life in the tunnels must have been like in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They speak of ghosts, of opium dens, of kidnapping and selling clueless young men and women into slavery.
Televised ghost hunts have also been conducted in the tunnels. Bars claiming to be in old speakeasies beneath the city streets have opened and prospered, or opened and then failed. There is certainly a robust curiosity that embraces the darker, seedier past of this great city of the Pacific Northwest.
But Did It All Really Happen That Way?
In a word: maybe.
While most reputable historical sources concur that the process of shanghaiing did occur in most cities along the west coast of the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, little to no proof directly linking the freight tunnels beneath downtown and old Chinatown in Portland with these practices has come to light.
That said, there is a feeling one gets when in the tunnels beneath Portland, a feeling that one may be walking in the steps of a darker, seedier past.
For all of us here at Urban Nest, the closest we get to the Shanghai tunnels that lead to the riverfront, is via the tunnel that supposedly runs below The White Eagle, which was once known as The White Eagle Saloon & Brothel. Located on N. Russell St., the saloon is only a few blocks away from our N. Williams office!