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The Last Word on Shanghai Tunnels - Including 14 reasons why the stories are bogus

I have never been on a tour of Portland's so-called "shanghai tunnels," so I am unable to comment on this attraction, except that I have heard that the tour is quite entertaining. Neither have I been to the Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland,  the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, or the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, for that matter. The closest I have come to this sort of tourist entertainment was while visiting the ancient city of York I took my family on the "York Ghost Walk." This tour is a bit of innocent fun with some old ghost stories mixed in with distorted history—just for the tourists. 

It may be true that I have no experience with the tourist tours of these basements in the northwest regions of downtown, but I do know a bit about them. There is a great deal of documentation in the newspapers, and in old court records. They were built by Chinese back in the days when Chinatown was the center of gang activity related to the different tongs. The gambling dens, brothels, and opium parlors of Chinatown were connected to separate labyrinths, with steel doors, trap doors leading to secret stairways, and tunnels for escape into far alleyways. These were security measures designed for dealing with both rival tongs and police raids. 

For quite a few years the authorities left the north end underworld alone, as long as the "special police," who were paid a mere dollar a month salary by the city, were kept well-oiled in a sort of city sanctioned protection racket. By the late 1890s this system started to unravel, and Chinatown entered into an era when policemen would bring sledge hammers and start battering down walls, busting the secret world open. The unfolding story of these raids, by officers with varying degrees of zeal, continued up into the twentieth century. In 1913 the city government created a "secret passages ordinance." This law was hotly contested as being discriminatory against Chinese. As late as 1935 the Oregonian ran a feature article describing the secret passageways of Chinatown, complete with diagrams. Copyright laws prevent me from copying this into my article, but for anyone interested enough to look it up for themselves, the article is a feature in the Sunday Oregonian, November 17, 1935 called, "John Chinaman's Jack-in-the-Box. Be forewarned, the article is filled with disgusting racial slurs that have become unacceptable today (thank God!). 

There can be no doubt that the north end was honeycombed with tunnels, even reaching beyond the north end. Here is a report from the Oregonian January 21, 1921:

Secret Passages Known
It is well known, however, that there are numerous secret passages and dens beneath the Portland business center which the foot of white man has never trod; or, if so desecrated, the white man has never returned to tell the tale. Police in lighter moods tell the tale of a tunnel which connects old Chinatown, near police headquarters, with the new Chinatown north of Burnside street. This tunnel, which i said to pass beneath the main business portion of the city, is though to have rooms and even cemeteries along its walls.

Since there were tunnels, how can I say that they were never used for shanghaiing? The answer requires at least a rudimentary understanding of what shanghaiing actually was, an how it was carried out in Portland, Astoria, and other port cities in far flung parts of the globe.
The double-decked docks of downtown Portland in the early 1880s. These docks were dedicated to coast-wise and local shipping.

There is no doubt that for the period of about four decades, starting sometime around the mid-eighteen seventies, shanghaiing was practiced by the unscrupulous masters of sailors boardinghouses in Portland, Oregon. In fact these gangsters, who operated from both Portland and Astoria, were so disruptive to the maritime trade that their shenanigans became a matter of international importance, debated in European parliaments. In the newspapers of the day these sailors boardinghouse masters were also called "crimps" a name that harkened back to the press gangs of the British navy—gangs that kidnapped able bodied men, willy nilly, out of taverns, off the streets, and even from hearth and home, to fill up the ranks needed by the Royal Navy. The sailor's boardinghouse masters were also referred to by terms, such as, land sharks, shanghaiers, and blood-suckers, and they operated a lucrative scam which the newspapers called "blood money." 
The grain docks, flour mill, coal docks, and lumber docks of Albina. Not a tunnel in sight.

The scam worked like this:  The majority of the world's maritime trade was on British vessels. Sailors leaving from, say, Liverpool, were contracted to make the 18,000 mile voyage, around the horn of South America and back—a journey of six to eight months. They were not paid wages until they returned to Liverpool. When the ship arrived at the wharf in Portland it was met by "runners" working for the sailors boarding houses who set about enticing the crew to abandon their vessel with promises of good food and a good time, as well as a chance to sign on to a vessel with higher pay. Nearly every sailor followed this route. The ship's captain was happy because the pay belonging to the sailors defaulted to him. The sailors boardinghouse masters were happy because they were able to lead these sailors (like sheep to the slaughter) down Portland's waterfront streets to their various "sailor's homes." The losers in the deal were the sailors, for once they were in the clutches of the crimps they were charged exorbitant fees for everything they ate, drank, slept on, slept with, and touched, all the while accumulating deeper and deeper debt to the boardinghouse. 
The docks closest to Chinatown were the Gas Company and Willamette Iron Works.

This was much like the old "company store" scam perpetrated on coal miners, like my maternal grandfather. I remember hearing stories about how the miners lived in company shacks and were given credit at the company store where everything was priced sky high. After paying rent, putting food on the table and coal in the stove the miners were never able to work hard enough or long enough to pay off their accumulated debt and see an actual paycheck.

In the case of the sailors, the room and board they received at the sailor's boarding house always seemed to take all of the advance pay from the next ship, the one with "better pay." This vessel would have lost its crew to the boarding houses in the same manner as the ones before it. When it came time to sail a captain would obtain sailors from the boardinghouse masters. He would pay the debts the sailors had run up with the sailor's "advanced wages." 

Naked we come into this world, and naked we leave it—and penniless the sailors came into Portland, and penniless they left it. Some sailors went from port to port in this manner, never seeing a shilling or a dime for their labor. And when there were no more sailors to "ship" (as they called it), the  boardinghouse masters would have to resort to "shipping landlubbers" an activity also known as shanghaiing. 

The docks above the Ash Street Dock were mostly local ferries and boat houses
This is a brief description of a nefarious and complicated scam that blackened the name of Portland around the world, and caused James Laidlaw, British, vice consul to Portland, unending headaches. When the crimps found it necessary to entice landlubbers to enter into the maritime trade they usually did so through sweet talk, and trickery. They were skilled at describing the romance of the sea to farm boys and hoboes. If honeyed words were not enough they could often times get the boys skunked enough on liquor to go sign the ships papers, either at the offices of the British vice consul on Front Street, or aboard the ship itself. If one of the farm boys got too pie-eyed to walk, one of the flunkies working for the sailors boardinghouse could go over to the ship and sign the name of the farm boy who was snoozing back at the sailor's home. Once a name was signed on the ship's papers the full force of the law, local, state, and federal, would make sure the new sailor went to sea. Occasionally crew members would be taken aboard in a stupor brought on by drugs and drink. There were times when an overdose caused the death of a shanghai victim. There were several unverified reports over the years that a wily boardinghouse master had sold a corpse to a ship captain,  but this could well be legend. With all of these things in mind, it is with confidence that I can say that the so called "Shanghai Tunnels" never existed and here are fourteen solid reasons why this is so:  
The export grain docks on the west side of the river were far from the shanghaiing district in the "north end" and they were separated by railroad yards. It is easy to see why a horse cab was handy for transporting new recruits to the ships.

1. In an extensive retrospective of the shanghaiing period published by the Oregonian in 1933 over 8 consecutive Sunday editions, that included many first hand accounts, not one mention was made of tunnels.

2. Nonambulatory victims of the shanghaiers were reportedly taken to ships by a hackney cab driver specializing in this sort of business. The main cabbie doing this work was named Tony Arnold, and the price of his services included carrying the newly recruited sailors onboard ship, should they be unable to walk. This is according to the account of the onetime sailor and longtime bouncer/barkeeper at Erickson's Workingman's Club at 3rd and Burnside, Edward C. "Spider" Johnson. He describes it thus in an 1933 Oregonian article on Shanghaiing:
That was in the days when horsecars ran along First Street. Tony Arnold operated a hack business in those days. Tony saved his money and later opened a joint in the North End, but before that he hauled many a drunk to the waterfront and put him aboard ship. Tony got to be quite a big shot in Portland's underworld, and  he made a good bit of his jack out of getting sailors on ships.

3 . Because the great fluctuation of water levels in the years before the Willamette was dammed the Portland waterfront was built on a double decked system. In countless photographs of the period, the waters of the Willamette river can be seen lapping around the upper wharves,  sometimes entering the city itself. During this time of high water (the heavy shipping season) any tunnels would have been submerged and unusable, as were the submerged lower wharves.

4.  Stewart Holbrook, the early 20th century "rough writer" who invented, or embellished most of Portland's colorful folklore, never breathed a word about tunnels when spinning yarns of the old shanghaiing days. It wouldn't have made sense to him, or any of the old timers who supplied Holbrook with the yarns he repackaged for his readers. Holbrook was not afraid of using hyperbole, exaggeration, or just plain fiction to make his "historic" tales interesting. He may have had 39 dying hobos lying in a funeral parlor basement shanghaied to the fictitious "Flying Prince"—a story so ridiculous that it is obvious he was having a joke at the expense of gullible readers, but in all of his stories, gleaned from the old timers, and from the first person accounts of real people who were actually shanghaied, there is not one breath of a word about the use of tunnels.
Stewart Holbrook

5. Throughout the greater portion of the shanghaiing period it would have been possible for some of the more powerful of the sailors boardinghouse masters to shanghai someone in broad daylight—depending on the social class of the victim, or whether or not he was a vagrant. This might seem far fetched today, but anyone who knows the city as it was then would most likely agree to this statement.

The Charlie Chaplin movie "Shanghaied" came out at in 1915, at the very end of the shanghaiing period.
 6. Vagrancy was a crime in Portland punishable by 30 days in prison (hard labor on the rock pile at Rocky Butte), then expulsion from the city. If someone was shanghaied they were no longer a vagrant. To a greater or lesser degree Portlanders were grateful for the service these sailors boardinghouses provided, as were the merchants who needed to move merchandise, and captains who needed crew.

7. Signing your name to ships papers, even if you did so in a drunken stupor, or even if a sailors boarding house "runner" signed it for you, carried the same weight as joining the armed forces today. To make sure the maritime business ran smoothly it was against the law to skip out on a ship you were signed to. The U.S. Marshalls would sometimes ride along on a ship as far as Astoria to make sure the unwilling crew stayed on board. 

An example of shanghaiing done in the open, in broad daylight is the case in 1906 of the British ship, Eskasoni. A photograph in the accompanying Oregonian article shows the first mate keeping the crew on board at gunpoint.  Some of the shanghaied lads attempted to jump aboard the Albina Ferry as it came close by the Eskasoni. One of the boys managed to throw a magazine with a note on to the passing ferryboat before being forced back on board at gunpoint. The note explained the details of his shanghaiing and begged whoever got the note to contact his father. The crew was in a highly mutinous state because not a one of them knew how to sail. The boardinghouse keeper had promised them, individually, that the work they would be doing would  be easy—no climbing up masts, no hard labor—but once on board they found it was a different story. The captain, however, had been promised a crew of able bodied seamen—fit sailors, ready to sail. This was not an unusual set of circumstances, and serves to illustrate the unethical, but not necessarily illegal, manner that most "shanghaiing" was carried out in Portland.

8. The secret passages of Chinatown were created by Chinese businessmen, mostly the owners of gambling establishments. When the city tried to make secret passages illegal in 1914 the law was opposed by the Chinese as discrimination against them, and them only—a violation of the Bill of Rights injunction against unreasonable search and seizure. 

9. The first mention of a "shanghai tunnel" was in 1963 when a Port Townsend hardware store tried to get a hold of some of the tourist traffic and put up a sign offering tours of the "shanghai tunnel" in its basement. That same year Oregonian reporter, Robert Olmos speculated on the subject when writing about secret passages discovered in Chinatown. (see addendum below)

10. Visits to the Portland, Oregon "shanghai tunnels" date back to 1972 when restaurateur Gary Cooper opened Darby O'Gills, a bar in the basement of the New Market Theater in Old Town. He turned an old drainage tunnel into booths, declaring that it was a "shanghai tunnel."  He arrived at this conclusion from listening to the rumors of "old timers." 

11. This new rumor was taken up in January of 1975 by two young men, Stuart Heathorne and Robert McWaters.  These lads attempted to put together something called an "Audio-Visual Museum" to "record the comments of those who lived in an earlier Portland." In Holbrook and Spider Johnson's day this was feasible, in 1975 it was preposterous. 
The origins of Shanghai Dock, December 21, 1923. In this case "Columbia River" refers to the shipbuilding firm, not the river. The ways for this company were on the Willamette very near to where the Ross Island Bridge would be built. The dock had not been accustomed to fully loaded, ocean-going vessels, so extra dredging was required.

12. In November 1976 another young man surfaced who claimed to have been exploring the shanghai tunnels since way back in 1969. This was Mike Jones, director of the "world's only hobo bank," the Transit Bank, in Portland's Skid Row. His work with the denizens of Old Town is commendable, but his source for historical information was the same group of people, an oral tradition dating back no further than the 1920s. These wild tales included ridiculous hearsay, like the existence of a dreadful "Shanghai Dock" down by Ross Island where many a poor victim was sent to sea. There was indeed a Shanghai Dock, developed from an old ship building site by the Shanghai Building Company in the 1920s to send lumber to China. I have heard of people who will swear on the bible that their uncle worked at the Shanghai dock and saw people shanghaied in the tunnels. There was a time in Portland when that level of delusion would send someone off for a long stay at the Sanitarium belonging to Doctor Hawthorne. 
Port roster in October 1924, Shanghai Dock is third from the bottom. This dock later became Zidell's.

13. Today's center of the shanghai tunnel story is Hobo's Restaurant and Bar at 120 Northwest 3rd Avenue where this same Mike Jones gives the naïve and gullible a taste of old Portland shanghaiing in the dark recesses of the basement. The center of shipping was no where near this part of town. If tunnels led to the river from there they would end up either at the Allen & Lewis warehouse, a wholesale grocer, the Willamette Iron and Steel Company, The Portland Gas Works, or the O. R. & N. Co. Ash Street dock. The O. R. & N. Co. (later absorbed by Union Pacific) had their own employees and had no need to shanghai anyone to get more. The grain docks, where all the major exporting was done, were downriver below the Steel Bridge on the west, and in lower Albina on the east. 

14. The Chinatown in New York City was well known for having a system of tunnels, as was Seattle, Tacoma, and Sacramento. New York and the Puget Sound were known for having ruthless sailor's boarding house masters who often resorted to shanghaiing. However, these tunnels did not give rise to stories that involved their use in the shanghaiing trade. They were recognized for what they actually were. In Portland from the late 19th century into the 1930s there were numerous raids on gambling dens in Chinatown, documented in gory detail in the newspapers. Everyone knew how the secret passageways, trapdoors, and basement tunnels were used by the various tongs—so in that period a shanghai tunnel story wouldn't be able to take hold. By the 1970s, with most of the old timers moved on to the boneyard, the still extant tunnels gave rise to speculation and merged with the well known tales of Portland's shanghaiing period. 

These are 14 good solid refutations, but I am sure there are more that I haven't thought of. Anyone interested in the Portland waterfront of the period can find out more in my book, Portland's Lost Waterfront: Tall Ships, Steam Mills, and Sailors Boardinghouses, published in 2012 by History Press. Portland's history is rich, varied, and populated with villains that would make Charles Dickens jealous. The true history has never been covered, to my satisfaction, in any book. The best way to become steeped in the past is by reading source material, like newspapers and magazines. We are fortunate today to have so much of this material available through library databases. There is a great wealth of stories to be found dealing with the old North End, sometimes called "Whitechapel." Murders, cowboys and sailors, whores, crooked politicians, but look long, and look hard, you will not find a single sailor being shanghaied through a tunnel to the river.

Don't be misled by this complete debunking. If tourists want to go look at the basements of old town and have fun I see no harm in it. But Portlanders should know enough to give a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" when speaking of these matters.

Having said all this, I am done. The idea of "shanghai tunnels" has had just about everything said about it that can possibly be said. I would now like to move on to more weighty matters like Sasquatch, D.B. Cooper, or the appearing of the planet Nibiru.


Abandoned, Ghostly Chinese Gaming Den Found By Portland Demolition Workers
Morning Oregonian
Monday March 25, 1963

It may be that the shanghai tunnels tall tale (let's retain the word "myth" for a more religious use) originates with an Oregonian article written in 1963 describing the demolition of an Chinatown building. The article, written by Robert Olmos, was on the front page that Monday morning. The headline read: "Abandoned, Ghostly Chinese Gaming Den Found By Portland Demolition Workers." As if that wasn't catchy enough the subheading blared: "Old buildings may have contained secret tunnels to waiting ships."  Whether this was a last minute thought by Olmos to spice up his already spicy story we will never know. One thing is for certain, the use of this passageway had to be one or the other, but not both. And since there was never a mention of anyone having ever been actually shanghaied through a tunnel, he should have stuck with the gambling den.

It is no doubt that story of itself would have been enough of a seed to establish the tall tale whose roots have grown to the ridiculous weed we have today. Tens of thousands of Portlanders read the story that morning, and like Will Rodgers always said, "All I know is what I read in the funny papers."

Added from a blog post of March 15, 2013

Some time back I went looking for evidence of the mysterious "Shanghai Dock" that rears its head, from time to time, in horror stories of the Portland waterfront. What I found was the hard evidence that the Shanghai Building Company leased the old Columbia Shipbuilding site at the south end of town. The Army Corp of Engineers had to dredge out the river in front of the dock to make the channel deep enough for the freighters of the day. The company shipped lumber to China until the first days of WWII when the Japanese invaded. This dock took the name in 1923 when the Shanghai Building Company took over. The name lasted for some years after the company folded—until the area was taken over by Zidell for ship breaking. Of course this was quite awhile after the days of shanghaiing sailors for windjammer tours. The last reports of shanghaiing are around 1915, incidentally the same year that Charlie Chaplin made the move, "Shanghaied."

Although it was frequently mentioned in the newspapers, especially in the "Marine Notes" section, until today, I had never seen the name "Shanghai Dock" on a city map. This morning I had the good fortune to be at Tom Robinson's archives. He pulled out a large format city map printed in 1934, and as I scanned the waterfront my eyes lighted upon the words, "Shanghai America Dock." The location was right where I have been saying it was—almost beneath the Ross Island Bridge. I am including that small piece of the map for you to see. But don't ask me why they put the word "American" in there. The company name was "Shanghai Building Company" and in the Marine Notes it was always simply "Shanghai" or "Shanghai Dock."



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you J.D. It was about time I spilled my guts on this one.

  2. Pretty convincing points, thanks for sharing your views.

  3. I think I once heard from an old longshoreman that Sasquatch was seen chasing DB Cooper in the Shanghigh tunnels of Portland. That would be something to investigate!
    Really enjoyed your book Barney and am looking forward to the next one.

    1. Hi, KimBob,
      Thanks for the support! That's a good one about the longshoreman.
      I have found out so much stuff I would like to write about 5 more books. The problem is always time.

  4. From the 1870 up until around WWI (or the early 1920s, I don't remember) the center of Portland's Chinatown was around 3rd and Washington, not Old Town. Chinatown was relocated after WWI.

  5. I will add that though there was certainly a labyrinth of passages between and among the basement areas of many of the buildings on a single block, there is really no way that these could have extended under the streets - the basements are much too shallow, any tunnel extending from them would have been more of an open trench. These were the days of unreinforced masonry, and any such tunnels would have collapsed frequently, especially under Front Street, as the mainline railroad ran down its length in those days. Let me also note that our current Chinatown was Japantown up until 1942 (not WWI), when its Japanese-American residents were so shamefully sent off to the internment camps - the Chinese from south of Burnside moved in to fill the void, although the populations had always been somewhat mixed in the area.

  6. Hi Barney,
    I admit I fell for the Tunnels stories, hook, line, and sinker. Part of it was the "veracity" given to the stories by the "Cities of the Underworld" mockumentary of the tunnels a few years ago.
    They toured possibly a bit more than offered on the standard walking tour, or at least, what they narrated seemed more extensive. Were you consulted on that? Did you watch it, by any chance, and recognize where they were?
    While it does seem like a fun outing for Halloween, I do admit I'm more spooked by reality than tall tales.


    1. Hi, Persephone,
      With a name like that I am not surprised by your interest in the underworld!

      Thank you for your comment. I have to say, "No,' to both questions. Few people care to hear my theories on the tunnels, which are not theories, but the obvious facts pointed out. I have learned a lot about human nature following this issue. It is plain that the majority of the public does not want to have a favorite notion debunked. Not just in this tiny issue, but in almost every aspect of life.

      Thank you for reading!

  7. Thank you, Barney.
    You actually shed a lot of light on this subject for me, even though I’m from Mexico and don’t know a lot of American history. Thanks to you I know understand a lot more about the myth or you could say theories about the Shanghai tunnels, which is a subject I enjoy a lot.

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