Portland Shanghai Tunnel, Oregon

Most people can relate that the city of Portland in Oregon as the city of supernatural and monsters as shown from the television series “Grimm”. But in reality Portland used to be like San Francisco, one of the biggest cities in the West Coast during the late 19th century to the 20th century. One of the changes now was San Francisco became one of the most expensive places to live and one of the prime symbol of the West from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Palace of the Fine Arts and the city itself. While on the other hand Portland ended up as the exact opposite. Even so both cities have a lot in common and one of those is the “shanghaiing” of innocent men to be forced to work on ships bound for faraway places.

The Portland Underground Tours hosts this event and usually you have to sign up and pay online to be included in the tour. $13 per adult while $8 under 12 years old. On the day of the tour people will meet up at the Hobos Restaurant. People are free to drink and eat before the appointed time and then the tour guide will take people to the courtyard.

The website Shanghai Tunnels give a brief view of what you will learn and experience in the tour. As stated, the visitors will get a glimpse of the hidden maritime history of Portland. The unique tunnels which served as holding cells for captives and the “deadfall” or trapdoor in the bar upstairs. Also, included were artifacts unearthed and people will be educated about this terrible force labor of the 19th century to early 20th century which is known as “Shanghaiing.” Speaking of Shanghaiing let us get a brief history of what is shanghaiing and how it ended up as its name.

The building across the street where the future sailors board

Shanghaiing involved leaving the boardinghouse behind and prowling the town, looking for strangers who might be rendered unconscious, dressed up like ABs (“able-bodied mariner”) and cashed in on the foredeck of a sailing ship. This word is another term for kidnapping young able men such as sailors, loggers, cowboys, sheepherders, construction workers, ranch hands and vagabonds and sending them to far off places in a ship. It was an illegal practice they were usually drunk and drugged and sold to sea captains who forced them to hard labor on their ships with less than minimum wage. Most of the ships go to the East and the most popular city if Shanghai and hence it got its name from.”

Portland was unique because trap doors were used to drop the unsuspecting victims into the “Portland Underground”, where they were forcibly held in cells until the ship was ready to set sail. From 1850 to 1941, the so-called Victorian-refined Portland was known as the “Unheavenly City” or the “Forbidden City”, due to this shocking practice. And, during “Prohibition”, the saloons literally went “Underground” and occupied a portion of this so-called “Underground City”, creating an even greater opportunity for men to find themselves aboard a ship bound for the Orient.” Those are information written on the website of the Shanghai Tunnels.

Shanghaiing was done on an ad hoc basis. Sailors were shanghaied out of taverns, where naïve strangers could be chatted up and drugged. They were shanghaied out of whorehouses, where female accomplices made business arrangements with men and then, in the privacy of their “cribs” while consummating the deal, knocked them out with chloroform. When all else failed, they were shanghaied off quiet, dark streets with a blackjack and a tarp.

We followed the guide which led us deeper into the tunnels featuring some cells where he said the sailors kept locked in until they were shipped. Then we saw a picture on the wall. One of the notorious crimps Joseph “Bunco” Kelly, he was an infamous both in Portland and Astoria for Shanghaiing and here is a history of his work.

Joseph “Bunco” Kelly

Joseph “Bunco” Kelly was a short, burly, affable man with a large mustache, originally from Dublin (some sources say Liverpool, but contemporary newspaper stories disagree). He’d gone to sea (voluntarily, apparently) at a young age and, at some point, found himself in the harbor at Portland. For whatever reason, he decided that this was the place for him, he came ashore and started his illustrious career as a crimp with a particular flair for the art of the shanghai. 

Sketch of Bunco

He wasn’t all that successful as a general-purpose crimp, running a boardinghouse and all that—although from time to time he tried. No, Bunco was a shanghaiing specialist, and nobody else quite had his panache. He is reputed to have been fond of saying that sea air was good for loggers. 

Bunco got his name by pulling a particularly brazen stunt one day: he stole a six-foot-tall wooden Indian from a cigar store, wrapped it in a rapped it in a tarp and cashed it in for fifty dollars in blood money—or so the story goes. (Like most stories of Portland crimping, this story comes from Spider Johnson via Stewart Holbrook. Solid academic sources on this subject are hard to find, as you can imagine, so much of what we know of the Portland shanghai scene is tinged with folklore.)

Also there was a story from the book Wicked Portland with one of Bunco’s most horrific tales but there’s a big possibility it was false. But the story was considered well-known in the old Portland.

“It seems that one night Bunco was on the prowl for ABs to fill a big order he’d received at a time when the Mariner’s Rest, the boardinghouse he sometimes kept on Second Street, was empty. He was down to prowling the waterfront in search of strangers to clobber or, um, drink with. Bunco had a special proprietary knockout-drug concoction in tablet form that he called “Kelly’s Comforters,” which he’d used with some success to drug unsuspecting plowboys, loggers and miners, and presumably he was packing a few of these with him now. But on the way to the Snug Harbor Saloon on the corner of Second and Morrison, he came upon an open cellar door. Wafting out of it was an odor that was strangely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.

The wooden Indian

Bunco Kelly always carried a small dark lantern under his coat. He got it out and lighted it, and threw a beam below. He couldn’t see nothing but the little ladder disappearing into the darkness.”

Bunco was game, however, and he went slowly down into what he described as the damnedest reek he ever hoped to suffer. He saw at once that the room was not wholly in darkness. A candle sputtered on a keg, and the scene its dim light revealed to Bunco Kelly was one he never forgot.

On the floor near the ladder lay a man. He was alive but not in the best of health. He was gasping, and every little while made as if to clutch his throat. “What’s the matter?” Bunco asked him. The man seemed to hear. He lifted his head a bit, tried to say something, but couldn’t.

Bunco now let his lantern play around the room. Propped up against one of many barrels were three men—doubtless corpses, Bunco surmised. Their mouths were open, and so were their eyes, but they were not seeing anything. Lying or dropping in odd postures all over the place were other men. Kelly counted 24 all told. Going from one to another, placing his hand on their brows and listening, he came to the conclusion, hurriedly, that at least a third of them still lived. Still, he could not be sure, for he thought that as he watched one of the men gave a deep heave and died.

Bunco soon figured out that the men had broken into what they thought was the basement of the saloon, but they’d instead found themselves below the Johnson & Sons Undertaking Parlors next door. The potent beverage they’d been sipping on, from the kegs there, was not rotgut whiskey but straight formaldehyde.

Prisoners bunk beds

Feeling dizzy, Bunco ran to the exit to clear his head. “By God,” he reportedly exclaimed to himself, “them stiffs has been drinking undertakers’ dope!”

It does not seem to have occurred to Bunco that some of the still living victims might yet survive if given prompt medical attention. Perhaps they were truly too far gone; formaldehyde is, of course, lethal stuff. But no, Bunco’s first thought seems to have been for the business opportunities the situation presented.

First, he closed the door, so that nobody else would be likely to stumble upon the party; Then he set about putting together the logistical support he would need to get two dozen dead and almost-dead guys down to the waterfront and on board ship. He rousted four or five friends, got them down to a livery stable and hired a bunch of cabs.

Back the crew raced to the scene, and they set up a human chain to bring the dead and the dying up the ladder and into the waiting hacks. There was much grumbling among the ranks until Bunco promised five dollars to each of his helpers “after these sailors are aboard ship.” After that, things went fast, and soon the cabs were racing across the cobblestones of Portland, headed for the waterfront, to a British barque that Holbrook identifies as the Flying Prince—I have found no record of any ship by that name, but it may have been a nickname for a ship with a name like Prince Edward or Crown Prince.

So, the story goes, Bunco and his pals lugged all two dozen of these bodies onto the ship, convinced the captain that he’d accidentally ordered twenty-four instead of twenty-two, collected thirty dollars per head in blood money and went on their way. By the time the Captain figured one what had happen they were already far off to sea.”

That was one of the stories around Bunco but there were lots of them as explained by our guide. But summarizing up the events in the tunnels it was also used as a hiding place for alcohol during the Prohibition Era. After reaching a dead end, it was explained that because it was not part of the building but the tunnels so we head back where we came from.  We left the tour feeling satisfied and we headed back to the parking lot for Magen who was waiting for us.

another passageway

Since its our Dad’s birthday and Magen is a vegetarian we went to the Vegan Restaurant in Chinatown. Vegetarian House is the place where we got some mixture of all vegans stuff and with meat and seafood. Then we headed to Salem to stay in for the night.

After doing more research and reading the book “The Oregon Shanghaiers ” by Barney Blalock I found out that the Shanghai Tunnels might be false and here are some of the excerpts from it.

“The budding “shanghai tunnels” legend was taken up in the 1970s by young people wishing to conjure history from the basements of old buildings and the tall tales of anyone old enough to be on social security. They took a life of a life of its own – especially as lucrative tours were organized. Today, tours of the basement areas of “old town” are a well-publicized tourist activity. The tours include stories of thousands of shanghaied men being carried to slavery on ships with amazingly large crews. The only truth to these stories is this: yes, there were some people who were shanghaied in Portland, Oregon. However, the likelihood of any of them being shanghaied via tunnel is nil.”


The book also provideed details and proofs that tunnels aren’t necessary to the Shanghaiing in the city. Like:

  • Portland’s water was too shallow for many oceangoing windjammers so cargoes were being carried through barge and steam tug.
  • Men who were signed as sailors but won’t go will be escorted by armed or special US marshals.
  • When the river in Portland was quite high means that the tunnels would have been filled with water.
  • The docks close to the city were steamboat docks and boathouses, nowhere near the Chinatown tunnels.
  • Those tunnels were used by the Chinese as storage or opium dens.

In conclusion whether the tunnels were used for Shanghaiing people or not it became a famous tourist attraction in the city of Portland. It might not be a historical piece but learning truth and false through research was an exciting way to learn more history.

Here are more information from the sites and books.


Wicked Portland – by Finn J.D. John

The Oregon Shanghaiers by Barney Blalock

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