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History shows that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. It certainly fits into the picture of history that Prague and The Vatican are undergirded by catacombs. But it may come as a surprise to find out that there is an intricate network of underground tunnels beneath modern traveler favorite Portland, Oregon.

The stories associated with these so-called 'Shanghai Tunnels' are varied, vivid, and deeply disturbing, and there's a lively debate as to the validity of the outrageous claims. Perhaps someday soon someone will descend into the tunnels under Portland and put the matter to rest once and for all.


Historic Portland Gave Rise To The Shanghai Tunnels

There were a couple of phenomena occurring at the same time that all tie into the story of the Shanghai Tunnels.

In the 1800s, Portland was a bustling port city. Like all port cities, the streets were populated by bars and saloons and the shadowy alleyways were ripe with vice.

Sailors, dockworkers, and merchants worked long hours in extreme conditions, and, being that the world was largely ungoverned, there was little protection in the way of labor laws and human rights.

If a ship was set to sail across the world, finding workers to join the journey was an ever-present challenge as the wages did not, for many, justify the hardship and time commitment.

At the same time, in this older and simpler world, sailors and dockworkers were infamous for their drunken appetites, including a penchant for the plush intoxication of illicit substances.

After a long and solitary journey, a young chap with blistered hands and no responsibilities would have had little trouble finding cheap and satisfying vice and pleasures of the highest and most depraved sort.

As a result, the illicit economy was thriving and generally accepted as a fixture of Portland.

In the 1850s, like in most port cities, an enormous amount of wealth was generated.

The new class of good and decent family-oriented Portland residents was growing in population and influence. One of the demands they made of the government was to clean up the streets so that the city was a safer place for the children.

Luckily for the men of vice, the politicians were like rivers in that they chose the path of least resistance. Instead of putting an end to the lucrative shadow economy, a policy of 'out of sight out of mind' was implemented.

The brothels, substance dens, casinos, and trafficking routes moved underground — literally.

The Tunnels Supported Portland's Economy

The many bars, restaurants, barbers, and laundry services of Downtown Portland (now deemed Old Chinatown) were complicit in the operation of the Shanghai Tunnels.

The basements of the various establishments were connected via crudely constructed tunnels. What emerged was an intricate network of hidden rooms and passages underneath the city.

While one use of the tunnels was for illicit vices, there was another much more important use; namely, connecting Downtown Portland with the waterfront.

The tunnels addressed several gaps in the economy. The above-mentioned labor shortage on cargo vessels was solved through forced labor, and the Shanghai Tunnels allowed this practice to occur in the shadows.

Drunken sailors who refused to work were kidnapped from bars and saloons in the city. They were seen entering an establishment but not exiting. They were dragged into cellars and down dark stairwells and taken onto ships on the other side of the tunnels.

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Many of these cargo ships went to places as far away as China, which is where the name Shanghai Tunnels came from.

In the choppy collage of drunken memory, a man would remember at one instance having a good time in a Portland saloon, and upon waking he would be on a rocking, rat-infested cargo ship headed across the world.

Related: 10 Off-The-Beaten-Track Things To Do In Portland, Oregon

What a strange hand fate dealt to these men.

The arriving cargo ships would also bring contraband by the ton. With a growing bureaucracy of inspections and customs, the tunnels became a reliable way to offload and transport illegal cargo without raising flags.

To some extent, the Old Chinatown was populated by trafficked migrants, and for many of these refugees, their first impressions of the New World were impressed from within the tunnels. Many of their first occupations were also in the tunnels as dealers of vice.

Exploring The Shanghai Tunnels

Unfortunately, there are no legal means by which visitors can access the tunnels. There used to be tours, but due to the restaurant closures of 2020 access has been limited.

SinCityPortland continues to provide walking tours of Old Chinatown, which is also the largest China Town in the United States.

However, the tours are conducted above ground, and stories of the tunnels are told through recovered artifacts and records instead of immersion.