Tuesday, February 12, 2013


"Tar" is a multifaceted word. Most people with any degree of literacy know that it was the term used for British sailors. If their reading accomplishments include the works of Uncle Remus then they are acquainted with the famous tar baby that the Br'er Fox made from tar and turpentine to capture the Br'er Rabbit. The story has become a parable of caution for those who might become embroiled in a subject merely by cursory acquaintance. 
Midshipman 4th Class Rabbit
 Before I go on let me make one thing clear: I am grateful for any reviews of my book, and any interest given to it by any organization. In a world that is drowning in books, it is a pleasant thing for an author to see his come to the surfaceif just for a moment.

In my book, Portland's Lost Waterfront, there are 3 short paragraphs dealing with the "shanghai tunnel" fakelore (manufactured mythology)that has become popular in Portland. It would seem, from the attention given to it, that this is the book's main subject. I expected my treatment of this subject to raise some eyebrows, but it was about time someone mentioned the facts on the tunnel business. Historians have known all along that this was an erroneous tale, but since, for some inexplicable reason, no one had ever written a book about the Portland waterfront, a refutation of the tale had never been put forward (in book form, anyway). I confess to having believed the story myself, until the fall of 1992 when the Oregon Historical Society Quarterly published an excellent article by Denise Alborn called: 'Crimping and Shanghaiing on the Columbia River.”  "Hey!" I asked myself, "Where's the tunnels?" From then on I searched in vain—through old books, maps, magazines, and newspapers--but I could not find the tiniest little rabbit hole of a shanghai tunnel in real life.

My son came down from Seattle last Saturday and after shooting the breeze for awhile he said: "Hey, dad! Great book review in Willamette Week!" Since this was the first I had heard of the review I grabbed a laptop and found it in a few jabs at the keyboard. "BarneyBlalock, Portland’s Lost Waterfront, What do you do with a drunken sailor?"

 I am indebted to Matthew Korfhage for a enthusiastic review. It was as good as I could possibly hope for, although it was shanghaicentric (my coinage)—it echoed quite effectively my slant on the tunnels. There was a wee bit of negative criticism in the review about the scant treatment I gave to many of my subjects ("ADHD" is the term he used). He is quite right in saying this. Instead of being designed for the size it is, I wrote a book that was about twice the size and then pared it down to fit the word count requirements—not the best approach.

The book has stirred some other "shanghaicentric" interest as well. The Multnomah County Library has asked me to give a series of talks on the subject at library branches around the county. The title that they arrived at for these talks is: Shanghai Tunnels and Salty Dogs: Portland’s Lost Waterfront.

After writing the book I thought it would be a good idea to write an article enumerating the reasons why the whole tunnels business is untrue. I came up with 14 solid reasons. I would like to find a publisher for the article, but alas, I am too busy (or lazy) to go looking for a willing periodical. I suspect the effort I made in research and writing will come in handy at these talks I will be giving. It will also serve as a blog post, either here, or over at J.D. Chandler's  Weird Portland.

I suspect the tunnel lore will live on for many years, but it seems that, with an interest in the actual (and far more interesting) facts newer writing will set the record straight for those who bother to look. Finn J.D. John http://wicked-portland.com/auth.html  is among those who have bothered to look. Doug Kenck-Crispin's Kick Ass Oregon History http://orhistory.com/kickassoregonhistory dedicated a podcast to debunking the tunnel story. I have several other friends whose obsession with Portland history make mine look pale by comparison, and each one of them gives an indignant snort at any mention of shanghai tunnels. I have thought a great deal about this issue, and since it is one I can't seem to get free of, maybe I can convince Br'er Fox to toss me into the briar bushes if I plead loud enough for him to think that is the last place I want to go.

Here are the dates for the library talks:
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 6:45 pm
St. Johns Library, Meeting Room

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 7:00 pm
Capitol Hill Library, Meeting Room

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 7:00 pm
Northwest Library, Meeting Room

Saturday, April 13, 2013 3:15 pm
Belmont Library, Meeting Room

Saturday, April 20, 2013 3:00 pm
U.S. Bank Room - Central Library

 I have come to find one segment of society that is not pleased by my revelations. I have a beloved goddaughter who is a big fan of Timothy Hutton's, "Leverage" TV show, filmed in Portland. The writers of this series have shanghai tunnels sprouting up in every basement, even as far away as Lloyd Center. She didn't seem to want to hear about how this was manufactured history. My fear is that a big crowd of tunnel believers will get together with a pot of hot tar and a sack of chicken feathers. I am counting on my faithful readers to come to my rescue should this event transpire.

"Oh, tarnation! They are at it again!"

 Midshipman Rabbit
To be sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle

Midshipman Rabbit went to sea.
In boots of seven leathers.
He went to sleep in the captain's sack,
And sneezed out all the feathers.
Tar me feathers, tar me down,
A sailor's lot's a hard one.
We'll drink the beer out of the town,
And then we'll beg your pardon.