A network of subterranean passageways once existed beneath Portland’s turn-of-the-century hotels and bars, connecting Old Town Chinatown establishments to the Willamette River. Their original purpose was to facilitate the more-efficient transfer of goods from ships docked at the waterfront, avoiding traffic on the streets above.
Today, the still-accessible areas of these catacombs are referred to as the Shanghai Tunnels (a term rooted in racism, related to nefarious activities surrounding the historic opium trade).
Like many of the goings-on in the city’s underground between the 1850s and early 1940s — organized crime, gambling, drug and human trafficking — the line between fact and myth is murky.
For decades, Cascade Geographic Society and its founder Michael P. Jones led the tunnels’ excavation and exploration.
Many changes occurred to bring us to the present experience, but those curious to see it for themselves can join guides Natasha Cimmiyotti and Jason Weis on a Haunted Shanghai Tunnel Tour.
The starting point is Old Town Pizza & Brewing, the original site of the Merchant Hotel where “ladies of the night” were purported to operate.
Standing in a narrow courtyard, guests will stare up at brickwork and cast iron elements, and listen to the tragic tale of Nina (pronounced “Nigh-na”), who was cast down an elevator shaft following a botched information exchange. Look for her name carved into the wall near the booth where she was said to have landed — and never left.
In the basement, you will learn about the tactics used by crimpers to allegedly imprison sailors and out-of-work men, forcing them to serve on trans-Pacific voyages. Crossings often took three or more years, so you can understand the hesitation to join voluntarily. Pro tip: Bring a mask, it is very dusty.
Once you return to the light, wash away the chills with a sample flight of beer — at least until you see the video of a candle flying off the bar, “Paranormal Activity” style.
There is a separate virtual tour if cramped spaces aren’t your thing.