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Digging deeper in the Shanghai Tunnels

Venture into the infamous catacombs beneath Portland and celebrate making it out alive with a pint of beer from Old Town Pizza & Brewing

A rickety wooden staircase goes up to a metal trap door

Who is... down?

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 an efficient transfer of goods from ships docked at the waterfront, avoiding the traffic and muddy streets above.

Today, these catacombs are referred to as the Shanghai Tunnels (a term rooted in racism, related to nefarious activities surrounding the historic opium trade). No underground tunnel networks exist today, but some connected basements are still accessible, providing glimpses into the past.

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 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.

Two images show a room of old bricks with names carved and graffiti

Many people (and phantoms?) have added their names to the back booth.

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.

The tour ends in a subterranean space that’s been decorated like an old speakeasy. Guests can enjoy beer tastings from Old Town Pizza & Brewing before returning to the world above to claim a complimentary pint — and wash away any lingering jitters.

There is a separate virtual tour if cramped spaces aren’t your thing.

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