Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
It was dark and menacing. The only light comes from the Genius Loci’s helmet lamp. The Genius Loci of Portland or the spirit of the place is my mind’s representation of the city, in human form. He had a helmet like a miner and is looking nervous. “Careful Dave, there non-human menaces under the city.”
“Like CHUDs?” I ask incredulously. Above us someone walks on an iron grade, a booming noise reverberates through the underground cavern. Shocked I jump about a foot in the air, all of a sudden I believe in CHUDs.
“Be serious, CHUDs aren’t real.” Says the figment of my imagination. “Things like ghost and bad vibrations from a dark past.” Her light catches the bottom of a dumb waiter, where a hundred years ago the body of a prostitute was supposedly discarded. “Bad things Dave, things that I am not proud of happened in my city. But it is part of history, part of me.
We are in Portland’s notorious Shanghai Tunnels. An underground labyrinth of devilry and intrigue, where men and women were smuggled out the country, or were they?
The Shanghai tunnels were a series of interconnecting tunnels underneath Portland that ran to the Willamette River. What the tunnels are not, is an underground city like in Seattle. In fact very little of the tunnels still exist. Maybe a hundred and fifty feet are still in there.
In the 1860’s a series of rain storms flooded Portland. The basements of the town’s businesses didn’t completely dry out for nearly three months. It is hard for us in the twenty-first century to comprehend what a dramatic effect it had on the city’s economy, back then by limiting its dry good storage. So the city engineers decided they would concert the town’s basement through a series of tunnels. This way if they flooded again the water would drain to the Willamette River.
It didn’t take long for enterprising riverfront entrepreneurs to realize that they could unload their goods, at the tunnels. Thus eliminating the need to pay the hefty price of hiring a crane to lift the goods from their boats to the top of the riverbank. Soon this lead to a large unground freeway of commerce. It is important to note at least during the daytime this was legal and legitimate commerce. During business hours the tunnels were as safe as the surface. The few drawbacks to this thoroughfare had, was that your competitor could see what you had in storage. And you could not barricade and lock up your basement because then your fellow proprietors could not use it to transport their goods.
To understand the myth of Portland shanghaiing, you have to understand that it was illegal for a ship to leave its birth in Portland without a full crew. Undermanned sea bound vessels were turned back to their docks. The way I see it, that was about the only law that was ever fully enforced in nineteenth century Portland. Most ship’s crewmen where pressed in to service and when they docked as many seamen as could attempted to escape their vessel and life on the sea. Leaving captains with a need to get more crewmen if they wanted to leave Portland.
The shipmasters where in dire straits to get a full crew. The word ‘shanghai’, being used as a synonym for kidnapping, originated in Portland at this time. It was originally a punch line for a joke. Two locals were at a bar and one was getting a little tipsy, his friend warned him ‘Hey don’t pass out here, or tomorrow you will wake up in shanghai.” OK, it wasn’t a very funny joke.
This lead to lured tales of kidnapping. How bars had trapdoors under stools, and how men where dragged scratching and screaming underground. That may have happened on occasion but the truth is just a shameful. Would-be miners would come to Portland hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. They would usually be broke when they arrived, and a ‘good Samaritan’ would loan them a couple of dollars, back then that was a decent amount of money. In more cases than not the money would be blown on whiskey and lose women. If the newcomer couldn’t pay off his tab in a few weeks, the Samaritan, would enforce a clause that the poor guy had signed in the loan documents that he would work the payment off. What the unfortunate soul didn’t know was it would be worked off at sea. The local constabulary would march him off to the docks to an awaiting vessel and his new employer.
In the sixties and the seventies, the tunnels became home for Portland’s transit and hard drug community. That and the fear that large holes under the center of town might be structurally unsafe, lead the city to fill them up. Only a single tunnel exist today.
You can take a tour of the tunnels. There are two tours, the Shanghai Tunnel Tour and a Ghost Tour. Take the ghost one, even if you aren’t interested in the paranormal. You get to spend about thirty minutes in the tunnels, which is really all you need to explore the small surviving tunnel. And you get to a walking tour in The Pearl District, and learn the quirky history of Portland. You also get to check out great landmarks like Voodoo Doughnuts and The Benson Hotel, the ghost stories are just an added perk.
Things aren’t as scary when we climb into the sunshine. That is a universal truth, things aren’t as scary when you can see them in full light. “See that wasn’t so scary.” I tell the Genius Loci.
She looks up, a bit of black soot on her cheek. “I guess not…Still.”
I know what she is thinking. No matter how much I know otherwise, how the logical part of my brain insist that I do not fear that which is not there. I can’t help but imagine tentacled Lovecraftian horrors squirming below us. The underground tour is the same kind of vicarious thrill I get from a rollercoaster. Still even above ground I slightly tremble when someone walks over the noise making metal grading, even when I bask in surface light.