Portland’s Haunted Shanghai Tunnels
Portland, Oregon. A mecca of art, shopping, food, natural beauty, and entertainment. But in Portland’s Victorian days, neighborhoods in the waterfront city saw the seedier side of things like saloons, bordellos, and boardinghouses catering to the working folk who were just passing through.
Tourists and locals alike gather in shops and restaurants, completely unaware of what lies just beneath their feet. Under the ground in most of Portland are 150-year-old tunnels that connect the basements of the city’s most historic buildings to the Willamette River, as well as Portland’s Chinatown.
These tunnels were constructed by the back-breaking labor of Chinese workers when Chinatown was the hub for trade business. The tunnel’s original purpose was to transport goods from cargo ships to the inner city without the hassle of inner city traffic on land. This meant that crews could avoid long waits and, in turn, losses of money. The tunnels also streamlined storage and trade of all types.
Seems like a good thing, great for the economy, and good for businesses. But little did the people of Portland know that the tunnels would go on to serve a more malevolent purpose.
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The Shanghai Tunnels Come to Life
Portland, at the time, was just a small town, but it had a large port that supported many ships—a fitting name for a popular port city. Cargo ships sailed for months and months across the Pacific before unloading their cargo in Portland. When ships were unloading, sailors had a very short window of downtime before they were expected to pack up and set sail once more.
Some sailors took the opportunity to abandon their wayward life at sea because they feared death and disease. This left sea captains with empty positions that needed to be filled as soon as possible.
People were reluctant to sign up for long sea voyages, and so crooked captains started the process of “shanghai’-ing men. Captains would hire men to ‘Shanghai’ replacement sailors for fifty bucks head. This is where the Shanghai Tunnels get their name.
Men looking to make a quick buck would prowl around Portland’s bars and saloons, looking for young and able-bodied men who were alone. They would then wait until their target was drunk and take him to the basement of the establishment, where they would knock the victim unconscious and drag him through the tunnels to the docks. Once on board the ships, these men had no choice but to work.
Some researchers estimate that as many as 1,500 people a year were Shanghai’ed in Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels.
Stories circulated in Portland, and after enough men went missing, people were more cautious about how much they drank at the bars. When abducting men became difficult, Shanghai-ers began to kidnap women instead. Some bars even had trap doors that were sprung on unsuspecting women. Once they fell into the tunnels, it was almost impossible to get out.
Prostitution rings often used the tunnels to hold groups of kidnapped women in cages until the kidnapper secured buyers outside of Portland. So, add human trafficking to the list of events that took place in the Shanghai Tunnels.
During Prohibition, the tunnels became underground expressways. Alcohol was transported from ships on the Willamette River to bars all across Portland. Police routinely raided bars during the years of Prohibition, making daily operations impossible for bar owners. To combat this, bar owners began stashing their alcohol deep in the Shanghai Tunnels to avoid arrest.
Once police began to realize that bar and restaurant owners were utilizing the tunnels for this illicit purpose, they attempted searches of the tunnels. This proved to be in vain, as the mere size of the tunnel system was just too vast to cover.
Portland’s Haunted Shanghai Tunnels
As one could imagine, such nefarious activity must leave behind horrific energies. Assaults and murders were commonplace in the tunnels, as it was a great place for local gangsters to ‘get rid of’ those who wronged them. During the height of their operation, as many as 1,500 people a year were taken into the tunnels.
According to reports, some didn’t make it out alive and were beaten, starved, and left for dead in the depths of Portland’s underground. The tunnels are extremely dark, and without a light, hope for escape from the miles and miles of connecting tunnels was almost impossible.
When deep within the tunnels, urban explorers report goosebumps and strange sensations that come over their bodies. People have even named one of the tunnel ghosts ‘Sam.’ Sam is reported as an Asian man who walks quickly past visitors in the tunnels, only to disappear when they turn to look at him. People report that he is the one responsible for turning off lights in connecting bar basements. Sam also enjoys moving items around the tunnels as explorers walk by.
One guide even heard someone calling out the name ‘Sam’ over and over again, echoing through the otherwise empty tunnel. Others report darting shadows and the feeling of cold hands touching their shoulders and neck. While Sam is considered to be a friendly haunt, others are less happy to have the living around.
Some ghosts in the tunnels purposely trip explorers, pull their hair, push them against walls, and watch intently as you meander around the dark and dank halls.
While on a guided tour, one guest reported this:
“We were rounding a corner, and I caught a glimpse of what looked like a 7-foot-tall man hunched over and walking toward us. I figured maybe this was just part of the tour, maybe it was another guide — no one else seemed to notice it. As it got closer and no one else was reacting to it, I began to worry and thought I was losing my mind. As it got within 5 feet from the front of the group, it lifted into the ceiling and disappeared. Seeing that, it felt like the breath was completely pulled out of me. I still can’t explain what it was, and after the tour, I asked a few of the other guests if they saw anything strange, and most just reported sensations of being watched, and one woman had her hair tugged a bit. I’ll never forget that day!”
For those brave enough, haunted tours of the Shangai Tunnels are offered – all during the day, of course. It’s advised that you come prepared with water and a flashlight and never, for any reason, leave your group. It would be a shame to end up like the Shanghai’ed men of the past, lost and alone in the haunted Shanghai Tunnels of Portland.
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