Historians: Oregon's infamous Shanghai tunnels likely mythical

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The so-called Shanghai Tunnels of Portland have been featured by travel writers, television shows and the Portland Oregon Visitors Association to lure an audience with tales of drunken or drugged men kidnapped and whisked underground to sell to 19th and early 20th century ship captains who needed crewmen.

The only problem is that the stories may be more fiction than fact.

Portland-area historians have found virtually nothing in their research to back up the notion that a tunnel network was used for drugging and kidnapping men - or to "shanghai" them, as the name of the Chinese city came to be used.

The city does have a history of the practice, also known as "crimping."

But local historians say the first recorded mention of tunnels didn't come until the 1970s - rather late, considering how long they were supposed to have operated.

"It's not good history," said Jacqueline Peterson Loomis, founder of the Old Town History Project and a history professor at Washington State University Vancouver. "It tends to obfuscate the real history, which I would argue is equally interesting and dicey."

But Michael P. Jones, founder of the Portland Underground Tours and unofficial keeper of the Shanghai Tunnels story, stands by the dramatic accounts. He said he will release the proof with a forthcoming book and maintains that the city is just trying to cover up its shameful past - which he said persisted until the 1940s.

"This is all politics," Jones said. "This is how it was in the past and how it is today. ... To deny that this happened is part of its history."

San Francisco was considered the "world's capital of shanghaiing" a century ago - but Portland at times rivaled the Bay Area for its kidnapping and selling men to work the ships of the past, according to Richard H. Dillon's 1961 book, "Shanghaiing Days."

Sometimes, "crimps" would trick men who had been staying at their boarding houses, or simply haul off those who were drunk or had been drugged. The men would wake up to find themselves at sea, forced to work as crewmen on a ship headed for a distant port.

Still, despite the prevalence of kidnapping, several historians said that in their review of old newspaper articles, seamen's publications, and city and historical society archives, they have found no mention of tunnels being used to cart off men.

Normally, they would expect to find legal or municipal records referring to the digging that would have been necessary between buildings. They'd also expect to find mentions, for example, in a 1912 vice commission report on Old Town, other crime reports or in stories about shanghaiing at the time.

"If there was something intriguing going on, it just boggles the mind that no one would see fit to say anything about it," said Richard Engeman, the former public historian at Oregon Historical Society, who has been trying to find evidence of the tunnels for years.

Still, the tours offered by Jones since 1996 continue to thrive. IRS filings by the nonprofit that runs the excursions show that some 6,000 people each year take one of the underground tours, including one version for history buffs and one for those interested in ghost stories.

Jones starts the tours with a descent into the basement below Hobo's restaurant in Old Town, peppering his talk with stories and anecdotes that he said have been shared by people over the years.

Visitors are shown what Jones describes as an old opium den, a holding cell with bars and brick archways Jones says were tunnel entrances before being cemented over. He also shows visitors a collection of dust-covered shoes, which he says were taken from victims. Their captors, he said, spread broken glass to hobble would-be escapees as well as leave a blood trail for them to follow should they succeed.

But on the tour itself, visitors don't venture down any tunnels. Rather, the tour consists of walking among a few interconnected basement rooms.

Not everyone completely writes off the stories. Chet Orloff, a Portland State University professor who was director of the Oregon Historical Society from 1991 to 2001, maintains that there could have been kidnapping via basement connections, although he declines to refer to them as Shanghai tunnels.

"Calling something 'Shanghai' is probably giving it a more highfalutin title than perhaps those much more prosaic tunnels deserve," Orloff said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)