🕳️ Wander with us into the Old Portland Underground

It’s Wednesday. 

And at Bridgeliner, that means it’s time to get weird — so snag your headlamp and let’s travel where now-closed restaurant Hobo’s used to be in Old Town Chinatown. We’re going wandering through a section of tunnels that snake underneath the City of Roses — the Old Underground of Portland — where we’ll take a look at our city’s darker and seedier past.

Take one last gasp of sunlight; let’s dive down.

A little backstory before we go underground: We went on a tour of the Shanghai Tunnels back in the fall of 2019, pre-pandemic. The descent into the depths of our city is a memory I’ll never forget. I don’t know if it was the temperature drop or the goosebumps that came with it, but it was definitely an eerie feeling clambering down the steep stepladder built into the sidewalk.

The guides briefed us beforehand, letting us know what to expect and things to, well, be aware of. I specifically remember one guide advising us that if we happened to see a “misty, shadowy-looking figure standing at the end of a tunnel dressed in turn-of-the-century garb” to not approach them. Uhhhhh, ya think? 🤔 Read on for what else I learned that day and for some of my own additional research into this much creepier side of Portland’s history.

From the 1850s up through 1941, the business of “crimping” — a form of human trafficking referring to the capture and sale of able-bodied sailors to sea captains — was booming in the City of Roses.

In its early days Portland “was considered one of the most dangerous ports in the world and earned the moniker Forbidden City of the West,” according to Atlas Obscura. So in all likelihood, if you found yourself out on the town, there could be a decent chance you’d wake up on a boat headed east. It could take some crimped sailors upwards of seven years to finally make their way back to the States.

The “Shanghai Tunnels” refer to a supposed network of tunnels and rooms that linked bars and brothels of the era together and connected the system to the Willamette docks.

So how did the crimping process play out? Simply enough: Impair the victim either through opium or alcohol, snatch them, and sell them off to a willing captain in need of more crew members along the waterfront.

The snatching could take different forms — some were grabbed off the street and hauled into rooms with locked steel doors until the victim was too tired to fight. Others might feel the stomach-turning shock of a deadfall — a trapdoor would open up under their feet at the bar (sometimes with the switch even pulled by the barkeep) and the victim would plummet into the darkness and into a holding cell.

If by some way or another they got out of the holding cell and tried to escape into the tunnels further, the victim might find his shoes missing and face not just the twisting and turning darkness, but tunnels filled with broken glass so the kidnappers could track his blood trail.

This style of human trafficking began to dry up in 1941 with the beginning of World War II — more battleships on the oceans made the process a lot harder, and a draft meant more potential victims weren’t there to kidnap.

Prior to the pandemic, the Cascade Geographic Society gave tours of the tunnels, starting just outside of Hobo’s. The CGS was “run by self-proclaimed tunnel historian Michael P. Jones, whose unsubstantiated claims of new-found evidence of the tunnels’ bawdy history has raised many a skeptical eyebrow among local historians and scholars,” according to Travel Portland.

So whether or not you tumble headlong into Jones’ theories, are a Portland history nerd, or just really love a creepy story like your editor, the Portland Underground tunnels will find some way to ensnare your imagination.

Thank you to our Bridgeliner Unabridged members. Stories like these are made possible with your membership and support.