Shanghai tunnels mostly a myth...or are they?

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By Finn J.D. John
May 26, 2019

ONE OF THE most popular tourist attractions for visitors to Portland is a tour of the “Shanghai Tunnels” that ruin beneath the Portland streets.

Historians of old Portland — credentialed academics as well as pop historians like Yours Truly — tend to scoff at the whole enterprise. Doug Kenck-Crispin, resident historian of the “Kick Ass Oregon History” podcast, once memorably referred to the process by which the Shanghai Tunnel story developed as “The Bullshittening.” Barney Blalock, Portland’s “dean of waterfront historians,” is also extremely skeptical — more than skeptical, really; Blalock flatly denies they existed.

An unidentified British grain ship at the wharf, photographed in 1904. Ships like this were the primary participants in shanghaiing in old Portland. (Image: Robert Reid Publisher)

They’re all right … up to a point.

The fact is that there is pretty good evidence that parts of the network that we know today as the Shanghai Tunnels were used to shanghai sailors. It’s just that they weren’t used in the way the Shanghai Tunnels tour guides say they were.

But then again ….

THE SHANGHAI TUNNEL tours are the fruit of the research, exploration, and imagination (in roughly equal parts) of a Portland character named Michael Jones.

In the early 1970s, Mike Jones was the manager of a financial-institution-cum-social-service organization called Transit Bank — “the world’s only hobo bank” — based in Old Town. Obviously, this put him in close contact with a lot of the exact sort of people who, clear up into the 1920s, were most at risk of being shanghaied. Some of them, in 1972, were old enough to remember those days. Others had just heard the stories from those who were. All of them were happy to fill Mike’s ear full of wild tales of the goings-on in those dark, sinister tunnels that lay beneath the abandoned, decrepit buildings along Burnside, Couch, Davis, and other streets of Portland’s Skid Row.

(It's hard to imagine this today, but in the early 1970s those buildings were abandoned and decrepit. Old Town was not a good neighborhood in 1972.)

Jones, over the decade, collected the stories, mapped the tunnel system, and in 1979 launched the Cascade Geographic Society and went into business leading tours for the curious — regaling them along the way with the stories he harvested from hobos he worked with, augmented to some extent with extrapolations and interpretations of his own.

And that’s the storytelling foundation on which the Shanghai Tunnels tours are based today — still through the Cascade Geographic Society.

SO, WHAT WERE the tunnels, then, if they weren’t used for shanghaiing?

The earliest tunnels were probably dug by Chinese merchants, to conceal and smuggle opium. Opium, in the 1890s, was perfectly legal, but heavily taxed, and smuggling it was common and lucrative.

The Chinese also had extensive illegal gambling operations that the police were constantly trying to shut down with heavy-handed raids by sledgehammer-swinging squads of bluecoats. On those occasions when a half-dozen cops suddenly showed up at one’s fan tan parlor and started battering away at the door, having a secret hidden passage connecting the joint to a laundry shop a couple blocks away was very handy.

These tunnels were still being used for their original purpose in 1914, when Oregon instituted Prohibition, and suddenly there was another useful purpose for secret underground tunnels. It’s not a coincidence that plenty of the Shanghai Tunnels connect to drinking establishments.

And it’s that connection that makes the strongest case for the tunnels to have been used to shanghai sailors. Because by far the most common way to shanghai a man was out of a bar.

THE CLASSIC VISION of a shanghaiing, of course, involves a blackjack. But unless you know exactly what you’re doing, clobbering a man hard enough to knock him unconscious is dangerous business. Hit him too easy and you’ve got a bad fight on your hands; hit him too hard and you can end up facing a murder rap. It’s much easier and less stressful to chat him up, buy him a couple drinks, and slip a little chloral hydrate into it while he’s not looking.

“Contrary to local legend, and according to an old salt familiar with the Portland waterfront of the period, actual physical violence … was almost never used,” historian Barney Blalock writes, in Portland’s Lost Waterfront. “Usually it was drugged whiskey in one of the North End saloons, or some sort of trickery played on young or inexperienced newcomers. Over the years, an untold number of men woke up with a terrible hangover onboard a vessel gliding down the Columbia River to the sea.”

There was a problem, though, for the aspiring shanghaier of old Portland. Shanghaied sailors are like electric current — they have to be used just as soon as they’re generated — before they wake up and start yelling for a cop. So, say you’re an unscrupulous bartender at, say, the Valhalla Saloon at First and Burnside, circa 1905; you’ve got a likely-looking prospect at the bar practically begging to be served a Mickey Finn; but the next sailing ship doesn’t disembark until tomorrow night. What do you do?

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A scene from Charlie Chaplain’s movie “Shanghaied,” which came out in 1915, several years after most historians consider the age of shanghaiing to have more or less ended. (Image: Postcard)

That’s where the shanghai tunnels came in.

Corvallis resident Karen Watte’s family story of the adventures of her grandfather and great-uncle — two Danish ship’s officers who made an unfortunate choice of places to have a drink — illustrates the system nicely.

The two of them stepped into the Valhalla for a drink, and wound up in a sort of dungeon underneath it. Their shoes were taken from them, and broken glass was scattered around to prevent them from trying to escape. There they were held until the ship was ready to receive them.

They were then given pills to take — probably at gunpoint — so that they would be unconscious for the transfer to the ship … and woke up on board.

(In this case, the ship was delayed by bad bar conditions, and Karen’s grandfather and great-uncle woke up while it was still anchored near Astoria waiting for things to calm down. Both dove overboard and swam to shore, to the captain’s dismay; as trained officers, they were probably his first and second mates, so it was a much bigger deal to lose them than it would have been with ordinary sailors. The two of them had to hide out with a friendly fellow Dane who kept a shop there in town while the police combed the streets looking for them; but eventually they gave up.)

An unidentified British grain ship at the wharf, photographed in 1904. Ships like this were the primary participants in shanghaiing in old Portland. (Image: Robert Reid Publisher)

But, were the tunnels used to actually convey the unconscious sailors to the waterfront to be loaded aboard ships? Almost certainly not. Why would they be? The scene of a couple of half-drunk sailors helping a passed-out shipmate back to his berth was very familiar to anyone who spent any time in the old North End. There was literally no way to tell if that passed-out sailor was being shanghaied, or just helped to bed by his trusted friends. So there was simply no reason to use the tunnels to deliver shanghaiing victims.

Furthermore, during much of the year, the ends of the tunnels close to the riverbank would have been flooded. Before the seawall was built in 1928, the river often came right up into the streets of town during spring floods.

It’s that seawall that’s responsible for much of the mystery surrounding the tunnels, by the way. When it was built, dozens of buildings were demolished, and any tunnels that might have run underneath them were collapsed. By that time, the Valhalla had already met a similar fate during the construction of the new Burnside Bridge two years before, in 1926. So one can’t simply go into the tunnels and see if they lead to the river; if they once did, they sure don’t any more.

BUT THERE IS one other important thing to consider, about the shanghai tunnels. Most historians agree shanghaiing more or less ended when sailing ships were replaced with the faster, safer, more predictable steamships. That happened in a slow process between about 1900 and 1930 — the last windjammer built in Oregon was the 201-foot barque North Bend II, built in 1921, and it was still operating profitably in 1928 when it ran aground on Peacock Spit.  Yet even as early as 1913, when the Glenesslin wrecked into Neahkahnie Mountain, sailing-ship skippers were having trouble finding officers and crews.

And yet, according to the conventional wisdom on the subject, by 1913 the practice of shanghaiing was virtually extinct. Ordinary loggers and farmers were more or less safe drinking and carousing in bars downtown. This in spite of the fact that seasoned sailors were leaving the tall ships as fast as they could — every able-bodied mariner who could choose between sail and steam would have to be a fool to choose sail.

So, where were the remaining tall ships getting their crews? Was shanghaiing still going on, quietly and with the tacit approval (or, at least, neutrality) of city officials who had every incentive to support it … so long as the shanghaiers restricted themselves to preying exclusively on the homeless? It would not have been hard for a 1920s politician to make the case that quietly encouraging shanghaiers was the very best way to manage the homeless population, so long as the shanghaiers tacitly agreed never to shanghai a “respectable” citizen.

Mike Jones got his stories and legends from the hoboes. A lot goes on in the “hobo jungle” that nobody ever hears about … of course, there’s plenty of tall-tale telling being done there as well.

But it’s entirely possible, and in fact rather likely, that the truth content of Mike’s storytelling is quite a bit higher than most of us would like to think.

(Sources: Portland’s Lost Waterfront, a book by Barney Blalock published in 2012 by The History Press; “The Last Word on the Shanghai Tunnels,” an article by Barney Blalock published Feb. 21, 2013, at portlandwaterfront.blogspot.com; “Shanghaiing in Portland and the Shanghai Tunnels Myth,” an article by Richard Engeman published March 17, 2018, at oregonencyclopedia.org; correspondence with Karen Watte)

SUMMARY: In the glory days of Portland shanghaiing, sailors were 'helped back aboard ship' on the city streets; there was no need for a tunnel to sneak them down to the docks. But the tunnels under the saloons and streets were useful for lots of other shanghaiing-related activities ...

TAGS:#PortlandWaterfront #MichaelJones #NorthEnd #TransitBank #Hobos #Opium #Prohibition #PortlandSeawall #OldTown #ShanghaiTunnels #DougKenckCrispin #BarneyBlalock #CascadeGeographicSociety #ValhallaSaloon #RichardEngeman #KarenWatte



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