Beneath Portland's old town is a whole other world where robbery, deceit and slavery were commonplace. It was easier to kidnap able-bodied men to work on ships than to recruit them and pay them a salary. Imagine having a drink in a tavern one minute and then falling through the floor, having your shoes stolen and being held prisoner until you were forced to work on a ship sailing out of port.

Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels – an underground education

Portland, Oregon was once a bustling port town that made a killing through importing and exporting. Many ship owners wanted to keep as much of the profits as they could, so they employed the help of kidnappers in the tunnels underneath the city to grab men who looked like they could work hard. It got to the point that men learned not to go anywhere alone at night. Many were taken from bars and brothels when their guards were down.

The bartenders worked with the men underground and split the profits they made. The victims would fall through a trapdoor, have their shoes stolen and then be thrown into a dark cell with others. The floor in the room outside the holding area was covered in broken glass, so victims couldn’t escape – if they did, they wouldn’t get far and would leave a visible trail. Once on board the ship, men were forced to choose between a three-year stint of work or death.

The tunnels weren’t only used for holding male victims. Women were forced into the underground and into prostitution. And they also housed a popular opium den. Needless to say, there were a lot of illegal things going on under the city, but people weren’t given any opportunity to escape and go to the police.

One prostitute actually made connections with authorities and was guaranteed her freedom in exchange for information, but it wasn’t long after her deal was made that she was found at the bottom of an elevator shaft. No one knows who murdered her, but her ghost has been said to roam the tunnels near the place she died.

The Shanghai Tunnels were number ten on the haunted episode of Travel Channel’s show 10 Most. People have claimed to see a face in the window of the opium den and the ghost of an unfortunate prostitute in a small closet-like room and others have heard the wailing of a baby.

We had been meaning to check them out for quite some time, but they always seemed like they might be too scary for me. When we saw the opportunity to go with a group, we took it. As someone who is afraid of the dark and also the idea of coming face-to-face with an actual ghost, I was apprehensive about the trip; however, I decided to take the plunge and get excited about going underground. I had always wanted to see what was under the steel doors that dot the sidewalks in front of businesses in Portland.

Torches are provided for some of the darker parts of the tour and your guide knows the tunnels and their lore inside and out. As you walk through the sometimes low spaces, you learn about the man who rediscovered the tunnels and opened them to the public. His fascination has turned into a lucrative tourist activity that also draws locals to see what’s hidden underneath the streets of their beloved city.

Once down in the tunnels, I began to feel more comfortable about the venture and got accustomed to the dim lighting – which was at times complete blackness. The stories were interesting and often heartbreaking, but even though we were open to it, none of us saw anything out the ordinary and left a bit disappointed. Now, I wouldn’t wish to be alone in the darkened tunnels, but I’m also not totally convinced they are haunted either.

If you’re up to ghost hunting, then make sure you make reservations ahead of time and wear comfortable shoes. Also, if the group is too small, the tours are cancelled, so bringing several people with you is advisable. Don’t forget your camera and a stop into Old Town Pizza – where the tour ends – to enjoy some of the best pizza in the city.

Portland’s history is often not very favourable, but it is a past full of interesting stories. What are some of the most interesting facts about where you live?


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