Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels

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My wife has a weird fascination with crime shows and horror films. Breaking Bad, Walking Dead and good old fashioned slasher flicks leave her both petrified and delighted. She’ll huddle up, wrapped in a blanket and watch with wide-eyed amusement as criminal enterprises and ghouls and goblins parade before her on the television. The kids don’t know about this, and neither do our friends. This was her special secret… until now.

For her birthday, I decided to surprise her and a group of our friends with a walking tour of Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels. This tour, underneath Old Town and China Town, is a walk through the depraved past of Portland, Oregon. It’s a macabre visit to the past that our prurient subconscious—the subconscious we deny—craves.

On the day of the tunnel tour, we hopped the MAX for the short trip to downtown and met our tour guide and the rest of our group outside of the Merchant Hotel Building. It was a cold, rainy fall day—a perfect tone for what we were about to experience underneath the city. The tour promised to bring to light what was once hidden beneath the city streets: “[A] venture into the ‘Portland Underground’ to see remnants of this shocking maritime history—unique architecture, underground holding cells, a ‘deadfall’ trapdoor, unearthed artifacts of this terrible, misguided labor practice, and more. This is a unique opportunity to learn about the secret history of shanghaiing.”

The Shanghai Tunnels are named after the act of shanghaiing. To “shanghai” means to kidnap and force someone into servitude, and it usually happens aboard a ship—or near a port (as in PORTland). While shanghaiing occurred in these tunnels, other terrible things happened in them as well…all of which will be shared with you throughout the tour. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

Our tour promised to be a terrifying and awesome experience. It promised to provide a glimpse into the shame, the controversy and the corruption hidden deep within Portland’s past. As we walked, we marveled at the architecture, shuddered at the dastardly deeds of earlier generations of Portlanders, and huddled closer to each other. Then we were handed flashlights and went underground.

In the tunnels, we discovered the inside scoop of what occurred beneath this now safe and delightful city. The guides separated fact from fiction in much the way that the tunnels separated us from the present. By the time we were finished and safely back above ground, we were pleased that the city we live in now is safe and vibrant. On the way home, my wife regaled me with wide-eyed enchantment all of the things that we learned. That night she huddled extra close to me as we slept. This made all the horror and disturbing imagery worth it.

Find out what’s true and what is merely legend and old wives tales. But don’t bring the kids. The tour bills itself as PG-13 and it’s easy to see why. But if you have a morbid fascination with all things scandalous and criminal, and if you have a macabre desire to see how the underbelly of society once lived in this now great city, take a tour of the Shanghai tunnels in Portland, Oregon. You won’t be sorry—or will you?

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