Where We Live: Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels

The Shanghai Tunnels were built after Portland's great flood of 1894

One of Portland's most fascinating urban legends is the story of the Shanghai Tunnels beneath the center of the city. (KOIN)
One of Portland's most fascinating urban legends is the story of the Shanghai Tunnels beneath the center of the city. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — One of Portland’s most fascinating urban legends is the story of the Shanghai Tunnels beneath the center of the city.

But a local tour guide tells KOIN 6 News not everything you’ve heard about Portland’s seedy underbelly is true.

“Certainly a few men were shanghaied out of these tunnels in Portland,” tour guide Kevin Moore said. “It wasn’t built for that purpose, though.”

The Shanghai Tunnels are a series of turn of the century basement connections throughout Portland’s central city, all the way to the waterfront.

Legend has it that drunken men in Old Town’s historic Merchant Hotel were drugged and dropped through trap doors into the tunnels below. From there, they were supposedly taken to ships in Portland’s harbor where they were forced into a brutal life of labor at sea.

The Shanghai Tunnels were actually built after Portland's great flood of 1894. (Portland Walking Tours)
The Shanghai Tunnels were actually built after Portland’s great flood of 1894. (Portland Walking Tours)

“Crimping or shanghaiing was quasi-legal in Portland,” Moore explained. “So there wasn’t any reason for you to do it under all of this skullduggery.”

The Shanghai Tunnels were actually built after Portland’s great flood of 1894 to help drain water from basements and move goods from the waterfront to downtown businesses.

The tunnels were mostly sealed off by the 1950s as police battled homeless and crime in Portland’s underground.

Still, the legend of the Shanghai Tunnels endures.

“You tell a story for 100 years and it gets fancier every time you tell the story,” Moore said.

According to Moore, cities from San Francisco to Vancouver B.C. have their own versions of the Shanghai Tunnel story.

If you’re interested in touring the tunnels, or to learn more about the real story, click here.

 

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