July 1999

Portland Underground
by Miriam Zellnik
photography of the tunnels by Brandon Barnett

April, 1898. Walter Pitt, eighteen years old and freshly arrived in Portland, walks along the city streets, looking around in wonder at all the traffic, all the people. Watching the well-dressed city folk bustle along, he feels out of place in this town,even though he's wearing his cleanest dungarees and his newest pair of boots. After several months in a logging camp, it's been a long time since he has seen anyone else but the other loggers. He stops to admire the window display of a men's haberdashery, thinking that he might just come back here tomorrow and buy himself a fine new hat...

April, 1998. It's an unseasonably beautiful afternoon, the kind of sunny warm day in Portland that fools the tourists into thinking our reputation for rain and grey skies must be a myth, as I head east towards the Willamette River along a narrow block of Ankeny. Smiling, tee-shirted masses congregate around an outdoor jazz band playing at Portland's bustling Saturday Market. I cross the crowded marketplace, hardly noticing the booths packed with baubles and crafts, until at last I am through to the other side, free of the shuffling browsers. Across Front Avenue, the wide green lawn of Tom McCall Waterfront Park runs alongside the Willamette, its manicured expanse practically exuding the well-documented "quality of life" for which this charming Pacific Northwest city is known. I approach the railing and look down at the river below.

Passing by the open doorway of a saloon, Walter steps inside, lured by the smell of roasting meat. He takes a stool at the long wooden bar that seems to stretch on for miles, and orders a steak and a glass of ale to wash it down. By the door is a dark bearded fellow giving Walter the eye. He walks over and sits down. "You look like you're enjoying that drink, friend," he says, motioning the bartender to bring another round. " Haven't seen you round these parts before - Are you new in Portland?" Before he knows it, Walter and his new friend are sharing their life stories, drinking beer after beer, all on the stranger's tab. Not used to the strong ale, Walter finds himself getting tired, almost too tired to hold his head up. It would be so comfortable just to lay his head down on the cool smooth bar in front of him, in fact, if he could just sleep for a little while... He awakens briefly as the bearded stranger is leading him through the bar and down a flight of steps. "Come with me, son, we'll find you a place to sleep this off," says the disembodied voice at his side.

Watching the water, I imagine I am standing on this very spot 100 years ago. Take away the music, the happy tourists, the smell of funnel cakes, and freshly mown grass. Portland is a crime-ridden city, with a well-deserved reputation as the "worst port of call" on the West Coast, if not the world. A small cabal of crime-lords have the city politicians in their pockets, and the biggest organized crime of them all is crimping, the illegal procuring of sailors for the many ships who dock here and need to be supplied with a crew - no questions asked. And since it might not escape notice - even in this dangerous part of town - to be carrying drugged bodies across the city's main thoroughfares, the enterprising crimpers utilize a network of tunnels underneath the city, known as the "Shanghai Tunnels" because they are used primarily to transport the kidnapped victims of the crimpers to ships bound for the Far East.

The next thing Walter knows, someone is kicking him. Hard. "Wake up, matey!" He groans, and tries to sit up, which is when he realizes that ropes bind his arms and feet. Beneath his cheek he feels wood, and he opens his eyes to see a large black boot headed for his face. "Ah, you're awake now, are you?" With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach Walter realizes the very floor beneath him is moving, bobbing as if on water. "I'm going to untie you now, but you best not try to struggle if you know what's good for you!" Walter groans, feeling bruised all over. "No use fighting anyways, lad. We're out to sea now, bound for China, and there ain't noplace to go anyway."

The city of Portland, Oregon, likes to pride itself on its pleasant Victorian history of roses and gentility. Before 1992, the Oregon Historical Society refused to even recognize the city's unsavory past, despite the overwhelming evidence provided by the labyrinth of tunnels under the city that had been used by smugglers and crimpers to ply their illicit trades. Michael P. Jones has probably explored more of the secret "city beneath the city" than anyone else in Portland today. A self-described local historian and the founder of the Cascade Geographic Society, he re-opened sections of the tunnels in the mid 1970s, and since then, he says, has kept "just in front of the wrecking ball." Every time the city undertakes any major projects, sections of the tunnels surface. Twenty years ago when all the curbs were made wheelchair accessible, then when the bus mall was built downtown, and most recently during work on the new light rail, the construction has ripped up the city streets and opened up a window to the underground warren. Each time, new sections of the tunnels have been exposed, and each time, Jones tells me, "I was able to get into them and document what was down there. No one wanted to admit the existence of the tunnels, and then I gave them the proof."

We're standing outside the Couch Street Fish House at 3rd and Couch in Old Town. The delicious smells of garlic and seafood fill the air. Jones has agreed to meet me here and take me for a tour of some of the more accessible sections of the tunnel, and with a friendly wave to the maitre d' at the Fish House, we enter the tunnel through the kitchen and down a trap door. At first it just looks like any other basement storage space of a busy restaurant, filled with boxes of kitchen supplies and extra chairs and tables. Jones beckons with his flashlight,and I turn on my own light and follow him into the corner of the room. As my eyes adjust to the light, I can see the careful stonework of an archway leading into a tunnel. All around us are piles of dirt and debris, making it hard to navigate without watching every step. Carefully, I approach the tunnel and shine my light into it. I'm met with the sight of hundreds of concrete fragments blocking the way through. "This used to go underneath 3rd all the way to the river," Jones tells me as I play the beam of my flashlight along the exposed brick walls. "Unfortunately, most of the businesses who have tunnel access bricked up the entrances and exits, so that they aren't connected to the other basements along the tunnel."

There's a musty smell in the dark air, and I turn and notice a heavy door in the wall, slightly ajar. Shining my light in there, I gasp. It is a small cell, no bigger than 6 by 8 feet,and a tiny window near the top appears to be the only ventilation. "That's one of the cells where they held the men," he tells me. "Sometimes it would be a matter of days before the men could be brought to the waterfront and sold, and so they were kept down here. If a man was lucky, and he didn't make any trouble, they might let him stay in a cell like this, with a little bit of air coming in through the vent up there. You see, if he made a lot of noise, they would put him in a smaller cell with no window, made of oakboards covered in tin. Can you imagine being underground in a tiny space with thick walls covered in metal? It would have been pretty hot and uncomfortable, so it was a good incentive for the men to stay quiet and follow orders so they'd get to stay in a bigger cell like this one." I can't help cringing as I imagine this very basement, filled with prisoners who had done nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this cell was an example of the desirable accommodations!

In order to understand the proliferation of the Shanghai Tunnels, it's necessary to look at the economic realities in a city like Portland in the mid-to-late 19th century. Much of the economy was based on a thriving seaport, and where there's money and power, corruption and organized crime often follow. In the heyday of crimping, the city was ruled by several competing crime bosses. The merchant seaman was little better than a slave, and the only way a skipper could get a crew was to buy into the system and pay a middleman for his labor. The captains of the cargo ships didn't like the system, but they were bound to it since it was the only way to find labor. The sailors themselves were resigned to long years at sea in exchange for a small paycheck and the promise of a good time when they got to port. In fact, in 1897, four men deserted from The Arago and were tried and found guilty, even though they claimed they had been sold into "involuntary servitude." That's as may be, said the United States Supreme Court, but it ruled against them, stating that a "sailor's contract was exceptional and involved surrendering certain liberties."

All along the waterfront were boardinghouses specifically designed for merchant seamen returning from their long voyages. Many of these boardinghouses were owned by the very crimpers who would as soon sell a man as give him a room to live in, and since sailors were known to be a drunken and disreputable lot, no one much cared to inquire too deeply into the goings-on around the waterfront. When there weren't enough bodies to be found by sweeping through the typical sailor's haunts, more men could always be picked up in the local bars: loggers, adventurers, just about any stranger in town with a strong back and no local ties to notice his disappearance. Throughout the 1890s, some 1500 men a year were kidnapped and sold to the ships in port.

Back above ground, I follow Michael P. Jones to the next stop on our tour, Old Town Pizza. We enter through a trap door in the sidewalk, and I am reminded of the story (possibly apocryphal) about the legendary crimper, Joseph "Bunco" Kelly. Seems Bunco was walking down a dark street on an evening much like tonight, keeping an eye out for any likely prospects to sell to the captain of The Flying Prince which was docked at the harbor and needing a full crew. Passing by an open trapdoor, Bunco stepped in to investigate, and happened upon a macabre sight: 25 or so men lay dead on the floor, having mistaken the cellar of a mortuary for that of the saloon next door, and having opened and drunk a keg full of formaldehyde. Thinking quickly, Bunco rounded up some of his henchman and proceeded to cart all the bodies through the tunnels and out to the docks, where he sold them for 32 dollars a head. As he counted his money, Bunco said to the captain "Yep, these fellows are dead drunk all right. By rights, you should pay me extra for all the money I spent to get 'em this way." And that's how Bunco Kelly sold a crew of dead sailors - for a tidy profit - in what has to be the greatest crimping story of them all.

The basement of Old Town Pizza looks innocuous at first glance, a storehouse of old furniture and empty beer kegs. I follow Jones through a small wooden door into what looks like a long hallway filled with mounds of dirt. Carefully, we wend our way past sewage pipes, in one case crawling to get underneath a particularly large one. All along the way are tunnel entrances, again with elaborate stone arches at the entranceways. Although most of these tunnels are also filled in with concrete and bricks, it is possible to peer past the piles of rubble and make out the long dark corridors stretching as far as the beam of my flashlight will go. Brushing dirt from my knees as I stand up, I survey the large room we are in. To the left is a brick wall, with small barred windows spaced evenly along its length. "Another holding cell?" I ask, and Jones nods. He motions me to follow him into the far corner.

It comes as something of a shock in this age of Disney simulations and Universal Studio tours, but I suddenly realize that perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that here I am with a flashlight crawling around in the dirt underneath Portland, and hardly anyone even knows this stuff is here. Unlike the well-known underground parts of Seattle, that have been cleaned up and "prettified" for the tourists, Portland's seamy past and these netherworld remnants of its criminal history remain untouched and unsanitized, even after a century. Continuing along, he points out a pile of old bedsprings leaning against a wall. They look quite old; Jones figures they're most likely castoffs from one of the many whorehouses that filled this part of town in the 19th century.

Portland in those days was filled with colorful characters and dastardly criminals. Bunco Kelly, the man who sold a crew of corpses, is just one of the many crime bosses who had his heyday in this bustling den of crime. Crimping was an established system as early as the 1870s, and the man generally credited as "The Father of Portland Crimping" was one James Turk, a menacing character who began by buying up some sailors' boardinghouses along the waterfront. He called himself an "agent" who would find work for his sailor tenants -- the term "crimp" is said to come from British slang for "agent," in fact -- but the reality was that he would often sell men against their will to any ship in port that was willing to pay. He had two sons, one of whom followed faithfully in his father's footsteps, while the other refused to work in the family trade of flesh for money. To punish his disobedience, the recalcitrant lad was sent to sea for several months to pay for his supposed transgressions. You know a man's a mean sonofabitch when he crimps his own son.

The 1880s saw the rise of Joseph Kelly, nicknamed "Bunco" for his supposed feat of selling a wooden cigar store Indian along with a group of more traditional human recruits ("bunkum" being a term for "pulling a fast one"). Bunco Kelly was the king of the Portland crimps for over ten years, until he was convicted of murder in 1894. He found God and repented in his prison cell,and was released in 1907 a changed man. By the latter years of the 1890s, one Larry Sullivan was the criminal mastermind who led the city into the 20th century. He wrapped the city in a web of corruption that brought criminals, police, and politicians together in a strange brotherhood that was to last well into the first decade of the 1900s. All involved made a decent profit from Portland's trade in illegal labor; it was the game that everyone won -- everyone, that is, except the Walter Pitts of the city, the poor fishermen and loggers and out-of-towners unlucky enough to stop for a drink on the night a ship needed a crew.

Retracing our steps, Jones leads us back out the way we came. Following him through the grey and dismal rooms, for a moment I get disoriented and can't decide if we're heading farther underground or back out the way we came. At one point, he stops and plays his light over our heads. I look up and see a wooden door. "That's a deadfall," he tells me. "It was a trap door so drunks at the bar could just be slipped through the floor and down here, to a mattress waiting underneath to break their fall." We continue along, ducking at points to avoid low pipes and ventilation shafts. All the tunnel entrances we pass start to look the same, and I find myself wishing they hadn't all been closed off. What would it be like to go under the streets at 3rd and Couch and come back outside on Front Street? Better yet, what would it be like to travel underground all the way to West 23rd Street, twenty blocks away? Supposedly, the original tunnels did indeed run that far west from the river, though only the parts in Old Town are still accessible today. At last we're back in the basement of Old Town Pizza, stepping over broken chairs and tables, and Jones leads the way into the warm spring night.

We walk along 2nd Ave and cross Burnside as Jones points out office buildings that were built on top of old Shanghai Tunnel passages. Stopping for tea at The Green Onion at 2nd and Ankeny, I look down at the dirt on my hands and on my jeans. We tend to whitewash history, viewing the 19th century as an era of innocence seen in the gentle glow of gaslight and sepia-toned photographs, never admitting to ourselves that all the greed and cruelty in the world today was around long before we were born. Late for another appointment, Michael Jones takes his leave and wanders off into the night. I stay awhile, drinking my tea and jotting down some impressions of the tunnels. The Persian tea is warm and sweet on my tongue, while ten feet beneath my table, a pile of old shoes continues its slow disintegration.

Dining out with History

Dine out atop the legendary Shanghai Tunnels, guaranteed to add that frisson of historical awareness that will make your food taste better! Note: Please do not approach the staff at these establishments about seeing the tunnels. Tours can be arranged through Michael P. Jones and the Cascade Geographic Society only (see accompanying note).

  1. Couch Street Fish House, 105 NW 3rd Avenue 503/223-6522
  2. Old Town Pizza, 226 NW Davis Street 503/222-9999
  3. The Green Onion, 15 SW Second Avenue 503/227-2372

Cascade Geographical Society

Tours of the Shanghai Tunnels are given periodically by the Cascade Geographic Society. Contact Michael P.Jones at 503/622-4798 for more information, or if you would like to volunteer to be part of the group helping to clean debris and restore the tunnels. For more in-depth tunnel lore, check your local bookstore for Jones' recently published history of the tunnels, Where The Silence Creeps. Copies can also be ordered by calling him directly at the number above.


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