The city of Portland is lovingly referred to as Beervana for its numerous microbreweries. The city has more brewpubs per capita than any other American city, but that statistic is also closely tied to the city’s dark past.
You’ll never hear Portland referred to as “massive haunted underground labyrinth city”, but without that, it never would have become Beervana. Welcome to the Shanghai Tunnels…
Oregon was the first US state to enact prohibition in 1843, but it was soon repealed five years later only to be adopted again in 1914.
It is believed that during those first five years of prohibition, makeshift tunnels were being built under the city of Portland for the transportation of illegal liquor, but it was the 66 years in between prohibitions that allowed for the massive growth of the underground labyrinth now known as the Portland Shanghai Tunnels.
Taking a cue from the bootleggers, local business owners and business associations began throwing money into the construction of a tunnel distribution network that would allow for quick unhindered delivery of supplies from the ports to the inner city. Once prohibition hit again, the bootleggers now had a more than ideal Underground Railroad so to speak.
This all seems fine and dandy, except that the tunnels ran under what had become in recent years the China Town district of Portland, and thus began the practice of assaulting and kidnapping able bodied men for sale into Far East slavery known as “Shanghaiing”.
However, the problem with assaulting and kidnapping able bodied men, who were also criminals and bootleggers, is that it doesn’t always go as planned. That’s the part where shanghaiing starts to pale in comparison to the history of the Shanghai Tunnels.
Normally, if a victim fought back they would either be released or killed depending on circumstance, but in the underground labyrinth of Portland the abductors had an alternative. Bootleggers would be locked up and starved, often beaten or tortured in order to break their spirits or at least to break their able bodies prior to shipping.
Obviously this practice also resulted in the deaths of numerous men. It’s estimated that this practice continued unhindered for almost 30 years in Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels.
To make matters worse, it doesn’t take a genius of an abductor to figure out that the Shanghai Tunnels could also be used for the kidnapping and rape of women, which was the fate of a young woman named Nina.
Working the Merchant Hotel where “Old Town Pizza” now sits, Nina was a prostitute. It’s said that she was drugged and raped in the section of Shanghai Tunnels running below the hotel.
Needing to conceal the existence of the tunnels, her abductors killed her and disposed of her body in an abandoned elevator shaft. Her ghost is said to haunt the restaurant as well as the surrounding tunnels.
Reports of ghostly occurrences from deep inside the Shanghai Tunnels include everything from the sounds of moans, hushed talking, crying, and even loud screams. Some visitors to the tunnels have reported whispers from the corner of a storage room begging to be told where they are and how to get out.
In recent years, the Portland government via historians has desperately attempted to discredit the Shanghai Tunnels history including the history of shanghaiing, which honestly does seem like a desperate attempt.
Oregon is historically known and documented as one of the hotspots for shanghaiing. To argue that the tunnels weren’t used for that seems a little odd. Their arguments include statements such as “no recorded evidence”, which considering that we’re talking about criminal activities doesn’t really prove anything at all.
Another statement made, was that the existence of Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels wasn’t even known in full until the 1950s. Again, considering that the practice stopped in the forties that really is just proof that the criminal element did a good job.
Today, portions of the Shanghai Tunnels are open to the public via guided tours provided through the adventurous services of Portland Walking Tours. These tours are a fantastic way to experience the full depths of an amazing relic from Portland’s hidden history, and have been referred to as “ghost hunting 101”.
If you’re looking for a more upbeat experience, then the Shanghai Tunnel Bar at 211 SW Ankeny St. claims to be one of the entrances to the less toured tunnels, whether or not they’ll show it to you is a different story.
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So happy to see this article written by someone who loves the Rose City as I do.
When I was little, way back in the early 1980’s, I walked up Burnside won my way to Powell’s and saw modern businesses using parts of the tunnels for storage