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Nonprofit behind 'Shanghai Tunnels' tour loses access to Portland's underground

The Cascade Geographic Society said access to the tunnels were cut off after businesses shut down or sold and handshake agreements were voided.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Shanghai Tunnels tour is a popular tourist attraction in downtown Portland, but the nonprofit behind it is running out of money. Multiple entry points into the Shanghai Tunnels were cut off to the nonprofit after the pandemic hit. 

For nearly 30 years, the tunnels underground of Old Town have been one of the area's biggest draws. 

"People came from all over the world to our tours and they would call us up for tickets saying, 'Hey I'm coming from Malaysia. I'm coming from Europe. I'm coming from all over the place because I saw this on television and I want to see it in person,'" said Cyndi Hubb, the president of the Cascade Geographic Society.

The Cascade Geographic Society has been running the tours since the early 90s, showcasing the dark underground history of Portland.

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The tunnels, the research and the tours are the work of Michael Jones, the nonprofit and tour's founder and researcher who died two years ago.

"He had been exploring and excavating the underground and researching it since 1958 when he was a 7-year-old boy and he first discovered his way into it," said Hubb.

The earliest tunnels could have been dug by Chinese merchants to conceal and smuggle opium, according to historians. The tunnels are also thought to have included opium parlors, brothels and gambling dens.

In 2020 when the pandemic hit, the tours shut down for safety reasons. Then the access points to the tunnels that the society was given permission to use via a handshake agreement were cut off.

One business closed for good and another decided to give their own tours using one of the access points.

The nonprofit doesn't own the building or two of the three access points they previously used.

"Problem is, building owners weren't on our side and we ended up losing access to two of our three spaces and the space that we were giving tours in we lost access to that, Hubb said.

That third access point is below the currently closed Cascade Geographic Society's museum and has a much smaller footprint.

"We were not in it for profit," Hubb said. "We were not in it for sensationalism. Our agenda was to push people on the history of Shanghai and... slavery in Portland."

Hubb said the current space needs city permits, safety improvements and restoration before it can open. But she added that the nonprofit is running out of money to restore the new area and expand the museum.

"We need to get back up and running, both to preserve Michael's legacy to continue his vision, and to bring life back into Old Town. Lots of people came here because of us and they're not coming here now," she said.

Tours through the Shanghai Tunnels are still available through a different company. The Cascade Geographic Society hopes to start their tours back up by Halloween.

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