The Shanghai Tunnels
The Haunted Past of the Shanghai Tunnels
In downtown Portland, tourists gather in the shops and restaurants, completely unaware of what lies beneath their feet. Lying beneath the ground is a series of 150-year-old tunnels that connect the basements of the city’s oldest buildings to the Willamette River, as well as Portland’s Chinatown. The tunnels were built by Chinese workers during the time when Chinatown was the center for trade business. The tunnel’s original design was for transporting goods from cargo ships to the inner city. By using the tunnels the ship’s crew could avoid the hassle of inner-city traffic. This was good for the business of Portland because many of them stored their goods in their basements. But, unbeknownst to the good people of Portland, the tunnels had a much more nefarious use.
Portland was a small town, at the time, but it had a large port that could support many ships. Many cargo ships sailed for many months across the Pacific before unloading their cargo in Portland. Because of this, sailors had a very short window of downtime before they had to pack up and set sail again. Many sailors spent their time drinking in the bars or fighting in the saloons. Some sailors took the opportunity to abandon their life at sea because they feared death by disease or debilitating injury. This would leave sea captains with empty positions that they would have to fill in order to leave port on time. People were, oftentimes, reluctant to sign up for long sea voyages. So crooked captains would hire men to “shanghai” replacement sailors for $50 a head. This is where the Shanghai Tunnels get their name from.
Men looking to make a quick buck would prowl Portland’s bars, saloons, and taverns. Looking for young able-bodied men who were alone. These ‘Shanghaiers’ would wait until their target was drunk and then take him down to the basement. They would knock the man unconscious and drag him through the Shanghai Tunnels to the docks. Once on-board the ships these men chose labor over starvation. Some men managed to escape the ships and warn the public about the Shanghaiers. Stories about the Shanghaiers circulated Portland and soon men became more cautious when drinking out at the bars. When abducting men became difficult savvy Shanghaiers kidnapped women instead. Women who frequented bars alone became easy prey for Shanghaiers. Many bars had trap doors that were sprung on unsuspecting women. Once the woman fell into the tunnel it was impossible to get back out. Prostitution rings often used the tunnels to hold groups of women in cages for long periods of time. This gave them enough time to secure buyers outside of Portland. Chinese gangsters were also known to Shanghai people after doping them. Chinatown had many different conflicting gang groups who oftentimes had their own separate tunnels towards the docks. They used the tunnels to sneak in immigrants as well as goods and drugs. The many different brothels, bars, and gambling lair’s received these goods and people through their own personal tunnels and trap doors. Like most of the gangs in the area, using these methods prevented them from being busted by the police.
During prohibition, the Shanghai Tunnels became underground expressways. Shanghaiers used the tunnels to transport alcohol shipments from ships on the Willamette River to bars all over Portland. Bars, hotels, and taverns often used secret passages into the Shanghai Tunnels to conduct their business away from prying eyes. Police routinely raided bars during prohibition, making daily operations impossible for bar owners. To combat this, bar owners began stashing their alcohol supply deep in the Shanghai tunnels to avoid arrest. Hidden doors were also commonly used in bars during this time. Police officers raided bars, taverns, and saloons in large groups, which made it impossible for criminals to escape. Bar owners used hidden doors and passages to hide their business associates when they were on the run. Once the police concluded their business, the criminal would return to his seat at the bar and have another drink. Once police officers realized that businesses and gangs were using the tunnels they began to conduct searches of them. Unfortunately, police officers were oftentimes unsuccessful because of the tunnels sheer expansiveness. Gangsters and bar owners had long since mapped out the underground passageways and knew exactly where to hide their goods.
Today the Shanghai Tunnels are used mainly as a tourist attraction for people to explore. During the height of its operation, an estimated 2,000 people a year were shanghaied through Portland’s underground tunnels. According to experts, many unfortunate souls never made it out alive. Many were beaten, starved, and left for dead deep within the tunnels. Gangs used the tunnels for their hideout and would often drag their victims down into the tunnels to keep them from talking to the police. There is evidence that the gangs even kept disobedient members in the tunnels as a form of punishment. Oftentimes, the disobedient gangster would be left by themselves with no light. Sometimes the gangs would retrieve their man after a certain period of time and other times they wouldn’t. Some parts of the tunnels go on for miles and miles. It would be easy to get lost in the dark, especially without a light to see where you were going. The labyrinth of underground tunnels is still explored today. Explorers can travel underground and see the holding cells once used by the prostitution rings. As well as, the trap doors the Shanghaiers dropped people through, which are still functional in some bars. Although, no one should explore the tunnels by themselves. There are many tunnels that have collapsed over the years and some tunnels lead to nowhere. If you are going on a Shanghai tunnel adventure make sure to stay as close to your guide as you can, you definitely don’t want to get lost down there!
It will come as no surprise to learn that the Shanghai tunnels are reportedly one of the most haunted places on the planet! Deep within the tunnels, travelers report feeling goosebumps as if someone is watching them from the shadows. Many people report seeing an Asian man walking past them in the tunnels. Explorers named the spirit “Sam” and say that he is responsible for turning off the lights in bar basements. Sam also likes to move things around in the tunnels as explorers walk by. One tour guide reported hearing a voice calling out the name “Sam” over and over again. It echoed through the tunnel and scared his guests. Because his entire group was behind him he knew that it was not one of them. He says it was one of the scariest experiences of his life! Others report seeing quick movements of shadows and feeling ghostly fingers on their shoulders when no one else is around. Most tunnel tourists say that Sam is a good ghost and look forward to feeling his presence. Other tunnel spirits are known as “tricksters” who just love to have a good time. They will often pull at your shirt tail, or gently tug at the ends of your hair. One guest reported feeling a small tug on her shirt before she tripped. She was not injured but it was an experience she says she will never forget. While most of the ghosts down in the Shanghai tunnels are reportedly friendly it is still better to remain cautious. Some people recall feeling unwelcome like someone or something is watching them. One man remembers hearing the sounds of childlike whistling just before he was thrown to the ground. After standing up, he turned to see who had knocked him down. Lifting his flashlight he saw that no one was behind him. The man reported that it was the last time he would be visiting the Shanghai tunnels. Although there are some scary reports of ghostly activity coming from down in the tunnels, most of the experiences are friendly. Be prepared to experience complete darkness, bring your own water, and to stay with your group at all times! Some parts of the tour are scary but we promise you will definitely enjoy yourself! If interacting with spirits interests you, then taking a tour in or around the Shanghai Tunnels is your best bet! So, get ready for an adventure of a lifetime! But remember to keep your wits about you down in the tunnels…you never know who or what is waiting down there in the dark.