Background photo: A hand-tinted linen postcard view of Three Sisters from Scott Lake, circa 1920.
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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.)
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.
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.