Portland was one of the most dangerous ports in the United States during the early 19th century and was the epicenter of an illicit maritime practice known as shanghaiing, a form of human trafficking.
The Old Portland Underground, better known locally as the Shanghai Tunnels, is a group of passages in Portland, Oregon, United States, mainly underneath the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood and connecting to the main business section. The tunnels connected the basements of many hotels and taverns to the waterfront of the Willamette River. They were originally built to move goods from the ships docked on the Willamette to the basement storage areas, allowing businesses to avoid streetcar and train traffic on the streets when delivering their goods.
According to local lore, swindlers preyed upon unsuspecting men in the local saloons, which were often outfitted with trapdoors that deposited the victims directly into a network of underground tunnels. These men were then supposedly held captive, drugged, and eventually transported to the waterfront, where they were sold to ships as unpaid laborers; some worked for several years before finding their way back home. The tunnels are said to be haunted by the aggrieved spirits of the captives who died in the dark recesses beneath the city.
In Barney Blalock’s book The Oregon Shanghaiers, Blalock, a Portland historian, dates the notion the tunnels were used to shanghai sailors to a series of apocryphal stories that appeared in The Oregonian in 1962, and the subsequent popularity of “Shanghai tunnel” tours that began in the 1970s. He says the tours were popular but misled visitors.
Spooky Fact: The practice of kidnapping men to work on ships came to be known as shanghaiing because the ships they were sold to were often headed to East Asia.