Shanghai Tunnels reveal Portland's sinister history

Shanghai Tunnels reveal Portland's sinister history

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by Abbey Gibb, KGW Staff

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kgw.com

Posted on February 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM

Updated Saturday, Feb 4 at 3:05 PM

PORTLAND -- Under an inconspicuous metal cover outside Hobos restaurant lies an old wooden staircase leading to a world of twisting tunnels and long lasting legends preserved in dust and darkness.

The Shanghai Tunnels of Portland are a network of catacombs one layer underground that once helped dubious men and women kidnap and enslave others aboard ships.

The brick-lined walls and layers of dusty floors lead you to an opening where, through the flickering lights, a small wooden hut can be spotted.

"You never know what you're going to find in these Shanghai Tunnels," said tour guide Michael Jones, with a smirk on his face and a cane in his hand.

Jones has dedicated his life to uncovering and preserving a history some would quickly dismiss.

"We're very lucky we still have it," the historian said while pointing to an old opium den hidden in the corner of the first tunnel.

As the wooden door creaks open, an echo rings out across the blackened brick walls.

"There were about five here that we found the evidence of [but] most of these have disappeared through the passage of time," Jones said.

A window in the corner showed evidence of jail bars because at one point, the room was also a cell where kidnap victims would wait for their uncertain fate.

"After the holding cell was torn out, that's when they put the opium den in. The underground was always changing," Jones said. "The purpose was, 'How do we make money? How do we keep people confused?'"

"Shanghaiing," as it was called, started in the 1860s, boomed in 1870s and thrived up until W.W.I. Then picked back up again until W.W.II.

"The more polite version of why they created the underground was so that goods could be taken from the waterfront to the basements of buildings so you didn't have to deal with the rain and the mud, tha'ts not true," Jones explained. "They built it because they were making money off human trafficking."

At $50 a head, these victims were cheap, easy labor for sea captains. Jones estimated as many as 1,500 people a year were Shanghaied.

"The captains needed them until the end of the voyage. That might be a couple months, it might be three years."

Shanghaiing was all based on vice: saloons and brothels.

"If you can get 'em drunk, I mean just smashed, then you can take care of them pretty easily," Jones said.

If they weren't drunk enough, you could always slip them knock-out drops in their drink. Trap doors became popular, too, Jones said.

"The bartender manned a lever. [The customer was] away from the bar and would walk over to the corner and disappear," he explained.

After digging for six months, Jones found one of those trap doors. It was the first of at least four that he has found through the years. He also uncovered a buzzer that bouncers would use to alert shanghaiers that their prey was on the way. Before they got through the doors of a brothel, a hand would reach out from another room and pull the person in. Once caught, the lives of those kidnapped would forever change.

First, Jones said the kidnappers would steal the victims' shoes and sprinkle glass on the outside of the holding cells, to make escape more difficult. After 11 years of digging, Jones uncovered a pile of turn-of-the-century boots outside the opening to yet another holding cell.

"When I stand here, I get shivers up and down my spine," he added.

It was even tougher for the women. During the prohibition era, parts of the tunnel turned into brothels. The evidence of which remains today but most women were shanghaied in the worst way, Jones said.

He opened up what look liked nothing more than a small wooden closet with an old dusty chair positioned in the corner. "The objective was to keep them in total darkness, in total isolation, they never kept two women together. They are made to believe they'll never see their family again. It took them anywhere from 8 hours to 48 hours to break them and then take them through the underground, aboard a ship. Then they disappeared and never returned."

Destined to be sex slaves for as long as they lived.

Jones said that is the true dark history of a Portland more sinister than many want to admit, covered deep under dust, only now seeing the light of day.

"What the good citizens of Portland do not see, supposedly did not happen and that’s what Shanghaiing is all about," Jones said as he slowly closed the metal street cover back up.

But this history is quickly disappearing. As these buildings get renovated or earthquake-proofed, a lot of the relics are being destroyed.

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