Portland is Oregon’s largest city and got its greatest boom in population due to the Oregon Trail. The water access helped develop the city as a hub and was a large part of the city’s early economy. It also was the reason Portland became known as one of the most dangerous port cities in the world in the twentieth century. It was known as a hub for organized crime and racketeering, often referred to as the “Forbidden City of the West”.
A primary reason the water source created such a great opportunity for crime was due to Portland’s “Shanghai Tunnels”, otherwise referring to the Portland Underground. The tunnels ran underneath the Old Town and Chinatown areas to central downtown Portland. Their primary purpose was to connect the basements of downtown hotels and bars to the waterfront. This allowed more goods from docked ships to be easily transported from the ships and ferries to the basement storage of many different buildings, saving time, space, and money.
However, as criminals usually do, the tunnels quickly began being exported for another purpose. In Portland’s early days, people referred to as “crimps” drugged men and women and took them into the tunnel systems, hidden beneath the city. They were also pushed through deadfall trapdoors into the system. Crimps were the individuals known for participating in “shanghaiing” or the illegal transfer of people through the tunnels hidden beneath Portland.
Shanghaiing refers to the capture and illegal sale of men to sea captains as crew men, usually at the going rate of fifty dollars a head. Often, those people were forced to work on ships traveling to the Orient in deplorable conditions for no pay. The practice was especially prevalent between 1850 and 1941, and worst during the period of Prohibition.
The practice was popular for a variety of reasons. First, many soldiers did not want to knowingly participate in voyages as once they signed on board, it was illegal for them to leave before the voyage’s end, often facing punishments as severe as imprisonment. There was also a shortage of skilled labor for the sips on the West Coast, often credited to the abandonment of ships while men chased the California gold rush. A final consideration that made shanghaiing such a popular practice was that the boarding masters were paid by the body and motivated to get their “blood money” by finding men, anywhere they could, to staff the ships.
The practice was popular along the entire West Coast, but especially prevalent in the Portland area, with estimates that over fifteen thousand people were hustled through those tunnels illegally each year. While men had it bad being sold for ship labor, many reports indicate that women were often subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as the men, but killed instead of sold.
While the practice was eventually discontinued, the city of Portland still utilized the tunnels for various other reasons throughout the years. Currently, the tunnels are available for tours by visitors and residents. They are told stories of the deplorable conditions that many victims were faced with in those crazy days. It is not uncommon for employees or curious people on the tours to have what they describe as paranormal experiences.
They often smell the strong scent of an old perfume in distinct places, feel tugs on clothing, see apparitions, hear moans or screams, hear someone talking or whispering to them, or even hear crying. Some say its the spirits of those who succumbed to the violence of those tunnels, trapped forever beneath the city of Portland.