The Shanghai Tunnels

History

Located in Portland, Oregon are the infamous Shanghai Tunnels, also referred to as the Old Portland Underground.

These tunnels connected the Old Town, a.k.a. Chinatown, to the central downtown area of Portland and then to the Willamette River waterfront. This allowed businesses to receive and move their goods from the cargo ships without worrying about the streetcars and train traffic on the roads above.

According to the information that is shared about these tunnels in TV shows and by the many tour guides for the tunnels, they were also used to shanghai able-bodied men during the 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. To “shanghai” is to force someone to join a ship, usually lacking a full crew, by drugging them or using other underhanded means. There was good reason that these ships were lacking the hands they needed; the jobs were very undesirable, and a life at sea typically meant a life of disease, injuries, and even an early death. Shanghaiing was an easy act to pull off with the tunnels because many people in the area were visitors or travelers, so no one would go looking for them if they went missing. If people did notice that you were gone, by the time they did something about it you would likely be miles away from shore. Eventually you would likely be abandoned in a different country over seas, and if you did manage to voyage back home, it would be far to late to report anything.

Women also became victims as well, but instead of being sold as ship labor, they were often sold as sex slaves.

Victims in the tunnels were typically drugged, knocked out with blunt objects, or they were intoxicated from the many bars in the area. Some of the tunnels run underneath these bars, and drunk patrons who seemed to make good crew mates were sent into the tunnels via trap doors where they would fall onto a mattress. (These were also referred to as “dead falls”.) The victims were then locked into make-shift prison cells until they were sold. In one area of the tunnels, it is said that they removed the boots of the victims and then lined the floor with broken glass, making it difficult for anyone to escape. If they did, they would leave a bloody trail of footprints so they could be captured again.

A box of boots that are said to have belonged to shanghai victims. Photo taken by Ivy in 2018.

I has been estimated that approximately 1,500 people were shanghaied in these tunnels each year…

Other than shanghaiing, these tunnels were also used to move and store alcohol, with some areas of the tunnels having make-shift bars. Homeless people often took shelter in the tunnels, and activities like prostitution did happen as well.

An old broken chair in the tunnels. Photo taken by Ivy in 2018.

haunted history

It is no surprise that with such a brutal history, and with so many victims, these tunnels are now said to be haunted. One popular spirit that resides in the tunnels has been nicknamed “Sam”, who enjoys turning off the lights in the basements of many of the bars connected to the tunnel. Sam also likes to move things around in the tunnels as visitors walk by!

Another spirit has been named “Nina”, and she is seen wondering the tunnels, mostly in the area that runs under Old Town Pizza which used to be a merchant motel. The story behind Nina is that, supposedly, while this place was a motel, she was pushed down an elevator shaft to her death. Nina is usually seen in a black dress, and if it is quiet enough you can even hear her breathing!

Many visitors have also reported seeing shadow figures in the corner of their eyes, and feeling ghostly hands grab at their shoulders, pull their shirt tails, tug their hair, and people hear footsteps when no one is there, or are tripped by an unseen force.

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Photo taken by Ivy in 2018 in the Shanghai Tunnels.

my findings and final thoughts

If you have read most of my other posts on this blog, you know that I do as much digging into the history of these locations as I can, which often results in quite of bit of debunking. Although people were shanghaied, there are no historical records or evidence of it being practiced in these tunnels during the time period that people claim. In fact, the earliest mention of someone being shanghaied from these tunnels was from the 1970’s, so many historians have agreed that the prior tales of kidnapping men and women in the tunnels, drugging them and sending them through trap doors, isn’t really true. Tunnels are a prime place for criminal activity due to them being hidden from people and the authorities above, but if shanghaiing was happening on the scale that the tour guides and other people claim it was, there should have been much more evidence to support it.

Even the story of victims shoes being removed and the floor being surrounded by glass was probably just that; a story. This disappointed me because I have actually been in these tunnels and toured them myself, and this story was told me by the tour guides, prompting me to take the photo of the box of shoes that I posted above. These claims were likely made from someone seeing the box of shoes and some broken glass on the floor, and crafting a hypothetical situation which was then presented to visitors as being a fact. That being said, a man by the name of Michael P. Jones, who is the founder of one of the groups that offers tours of the tunnels, insists that he has indisputable evidence proving their claims of shanghaiing. As promising as this sounds, he refused to release said information and instead is in the process of writing a book about it, so people would have to pay for the book to learn about this information.

Edit: It has come to my attention that Michael P. Jones passed away in March of 2020. My condolences go out to his friends and family. I could find no new information about the indisputable evidence proving the vast shanghai claims. Here is some of his obituary:

“As a young boy, Michael discovered and explored sections of the old Portland underground, and spent his life learning from and respecting the oral histories shared by countless people whose lives were directly or indirectly impacted by the illegal practices of the Shanghai trade. After years of physically digging out/preserving/restoring small sections, Michael and volunteers were able to offer tours to educate the public and share what he had learned. The Museum of the Shanghai Tunnels in Old Town today displays hundreds of collected artifacts, and reflects Michael’s reverence for people’s personal histories. Michael was a passionate advocate for the rights of all people, and founded several organizations in addition to the Cascade Geographic Society: Native Americans for Enola Hill, the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance, and other social justice groups. Michael was an unofficial steward of Native cultural and burial sites, and his work will continue to move forward.”

In conclusion for this section, I will say that although I don’t personally believe in many of the shanghai stories (because of the lack of evidence) I do still believe that these tunnels could be haunted. Not only with residual energies from the stone and the age of the tunnels, but also for the tragedies that I am sure occurred down there regardless of whether the shanghai rumors are true or not.

While in the tunnels, we experienced no paranormal activity and did not capture anything in photos or in videos. (Except for dirt and dust!) Although there was no actual paranormal encounters or evidence, I did still get some odd vibes, and it was still a wonderful experience!

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One might say that there is a misty apparition in this photo, but I debunked this on the spot; some of the dirt has simply been kicked up before I took the photo. This often gets mistaken for being paranormal, so be aware of this in your photos and videos. Photo taken in 2018.

Tips for debunking:

  • The floors are quite uneven, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the visitors had fallen by accident, but claimed to be tripped out of embarrassment. (This happens often at haunted locations.)
  • The tunnels can be cobweb city! A cobweb pulling on your hair or clothing while in a very dark, spooky tunnel would obviously frighten most people. It is very possible that some of the hair and clothes tugging encounters may have just been from the cobwebs.
  • Dirt and dust will show up in nearly every photo.
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The small greenish ball of light was likely from a light or a camera that is on the tripod looking thing below it. Photo taken in the tunnels by Ivy in 2018.

my tips for visiting

Can it be investigated? Yes, for the most part.

You can purchase tickets for ghost hunts, but I was not able to snag one while I was there, so we opted for a guided tour that offered both historical information and told a few ghost stories as well. It cost us around $20-30 per ticket, just check online for current tour options and prices.

Take some of the stories that the tour guides tell you with a grain of salt.

Some of the ceilings and entryways are pretty short, so taller folks, be warned! My husband is 6’6″ and struggled with not hitting his head in some areas of the tunnels.

An old doll in a glass case in the tunnels. Photo taken by Ivy in 2018.

Frighteningly yours,

Ivy!

Works cited:

https://portlandghosts.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_tunnels

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