Shanghai Tunnels

One of the best opportunities to learn about the illegal practice of shanghaiing in the American West is in Portland, Oregon. If you’ve ever heard Portland referred to as the Forbidden City of the West and wondered why, a visit to the Shanghai Tunnels could clear things up for you. Then again, it could just raise more questions about a legend that persisted for over 150 years.


If you aren’t familiar with shanghaiing, it refers to the capture and illegal sale of able-bodied men to sea captains in need of crewmen. Unscrupulous (to say the least) middlemen kidnapped men and sold them off to captains for as little as $50 a head. These poor men were then forced to work on ships bound for the Orient with no pay. According to legend as well as some historical data, men were shanghaied in Portland from roughly 1850 to 1941. Things were supposedly at their worst during Prohibition.

It almost sounds too bizarre and horrific to be little more than a myth or legend, but shanghaiing did take place. It was a practice that occurred in Portland as well as other locations along the West Coast. What is questioned is the means by which it was carried out in Portland, and the relationship if any between the Portland Underground and shanghai practices.

The Shanghai Tunnels or Portland Underground consist of tunnel passages linking Portland’s Old Town (Chinatown) to the central downtown area of Portland. The basements of many downtown bars and hotels were linked to the Willamette River waterfront through the tunnels, allowing supplies to be moved from ships docked there directly to basements for storage. Although many residents used to doubt it was true, the catacombs snaking beneath the city do in fact exist.

Since the mid-19th century, stories have been told about shanghai practices in Portland. Not only men but women, too were warned to take care against being drugged or kidnapped and hauled off for sale. Women were allegedly shanghaied for use as prostitutes rather than ship’s laborers. Although other ports along the West Coast including San Francisco are said to have been centers of shanghai activity, Portland’s underground tunnels are claimed to have made the practice much more manageable and wide-spread than in other areas.


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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Syrin from Wasilla
    Oct 26, 2009 @ 12:06:00

    Tom and I are visiting our daughter, she just bought a beautiful home in Portland. She works for The Army Core of Engineers. What an interesting historical city.


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