Author Topic: Shanghai tunnels dark side of Portland  (Read 1995 times)

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Shanghai tunnels dark side of Portland
« on: May 07, 2003, 01:49:46 AM »
David Bly  
For CanWest News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. - Michael Jones lifts up a trapdoor in the sidewalk in front of Hobo's Restaurant, and leads the way down into the darkest chapter of Portland's history.

This is an entry point to the Shanghai tunnels, the network of passages, staircases, trapdoors and basement hideaways through which flowed a stream of human misery for nearly 100 years.

This is the part of town where men were knocked out, drugged or otherwise subdued and carried through tunnels to the waterfront, where they were put on to ships as forced labour. The reluctant sailors would sometimes sail as far as the Chinese city of Shanghai, hence the term shanghaied.

"If a captain was about to sail, and found he didn't have a full crew, he would pay 'crimps' (kidnappers) for each able-bodied man they brought to his ship," says Jones, a Portland storyteller and historian.

While it was a practice that took place in most port cities, Portland was the worst, Jones says.

"The heyday was between 1870 and 1917," he says, "but it began in 1850 and lasted until 1941.

"Portland was number one for shanghaiing. Number two was San Francisco and it was a distant second."

It was big business, he says -- captains paid as much as $55 a head for the captive labourers. Little hard data exists, but Jones estimates as many as 1,500 men a year were kidnapped in Portland's old North End.

"Many were never heard of again," he says. "Working on a sailing ship was hard, dangerous work."

For those who came back, the journey home could take six years or more.

Jones has been poking about under the streets and buildings of Portland since he was seven years old. He talked to old sailors and others who knew about shanghaiing. Now he leads tours through the basements and remnants of the tunnels.

"This is the other side of Portland," he says. "This is the other side of that prim and proper Victorian city nestled on the banks of the Willamette."

Portland is nearly 150 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, but it sits where the Willamette River joins the Columbia. Ocean-going ships sail up the Columbia to dock at Portland's waterfront.

Boardinghouses, saloons, sailors' rescue missions, opium dens and brothels flourished in Portland's north end.

"This was a rough area," Jones says. "There were a lot of police but no law enforcement."

The police were part of the corruption, he says.

Crimps were not particularly fussy about who they kidnapped. If they couldn't find sailors, they would snatch loggers, farmers or native Americans to sell to the sea captains.

There's an official explanation of the tunnels. With Portland's plentiful rainfall, it made sense to push carts of goods through tunnels rather than trying to get through the muddy streets. But Jones believes the main trade in the tunnels was in human beings.

It's not possible now to travel the old tunnels. Many have disappeared with new construction. Many others can be found, but have been filled with rubble.

Flooding over the years brought layers of silt into the tunnels, and Jones and his colleagues are digging away at the silt where they can get access.

They have found bricked-up archways that were once entrances to tunnels, or doorways between basements. They have found cells Jones believes once held the captive sailors.

The basements and tunnels sheltered other illicit activities. The tunnels provided passages of escape when police raided opium dens. Many women also disappeared into the tunnels, to be spirited away for the sex trade in far-off places.

In one tunnel, Jones shows a pile of old boots. Shanghai victims had their boots removed, he says, and floors were covered with a layer of broken glass so they couldn't escape.

Later, he reaches up and pulls a rope. A trapdoor clatters open and a dummy falls through on to a mattress.

"Sometimes a man would be standing at a bar drinking, and he would disappear through a trap door," Jones explains. "This is one of those trap doors."

Bringing up the rear of the tour is burly Jake Hartman, who carries a digital camera that he flashes into the darkness, seemingly at random.

"I'm a paranormal investigator," he explains. "There are ghosts down here." He's hoping the camera will catch evidence of the tunnels' spectral inhabitants.

"Some say the tunnels are haunted," Jones says. "I say they are haunted by their terrible past. This was human abuse at its worst. This is Portland's shame."


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Ran with fact box "If you go", which has been appended to this story.