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Go underground in Portland

Adventures through Portland’s underground Shanghai Tunnels

Shanghai Tunnel tour participants navigating from one underground room to the next in downtown Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: Christina Butcher

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"Shanghaiing," or kidnapping people and forcing them into servitude, is an undeniable part of Portland's past. Between 1850 and 1941, thousands of people were shanghaied while patronizing saloons, brothels and gambling dens along Portland's waterfront district. They were tricked, drugged and imprisoned in underground "shanghai tunnels" until they could be traded or sold, and finally, boarded on ships leaving port. They were a part of Portland's infamous shanghai slave trade.

But don't just take our word for it. Head to Portland this fall to take a guided Shanghai Tunnel tour and learn firsthand about the city's macabre, underground history. The guided tour, which is run by Cascade Geographic Society, is approximately 90 minutes long and held almost entirely underground. It focuses on educating participants about the shanghai slave trade in Portland from 1850 to 1941.

"I hope people don't just rely on books, because books don't hold all our history," said Michael P. Jones, founder and curator of Cascade Geographic Society. "Oral history can tell a whole different side of history, one that includes things that aren't prim and proper ... and we need to acknowledge those things because they affect our future."

The Shanghai Tunnel tour starts with a short aboveground orientation. Then, participants are led to a metal hatch set into the sidewalk of Third Avenue in downtown Portland. Tour guides open the creaky hatch, revealing a steep staircase that opens into a true shanghai tunnel. Flashlights are offered to participants as they descend the staircase, but besides their soft, yellowed beam of light, the tour is delivered entirely in the dark.

Once safely underground, participants are led through a series of tunnels and rooms that span the length of four buildings on the street above. Tour guides lead groups from one room to the next, explaining how the complex network of shanghai slave trade operated in its hay day. Participants can slip inside holding cells, peer into the darkness through bar-lined windows, watch deadfall trapdoors swing open above them, and explore a true opium den. Remnants of Portland's seedy past -- including clothing, suitcases and tools -- are scattered throughout the tunnels.

"We're trying to get people excited about history, because history has such a big impact on us," said Jones. "You won't know yourself unless you look back on your roots. But things are changing so quickly nowadays that people are forgetting to look back."

During the last few minutes of the tour, guides transition from speaking about Portland's past to informing participants about the ongoing issue of human trafficking, especially as it pertains to the Pacific Northwest.  

"Portland denies its past. But if we don't deal with our past, it'll repeat itself in the future," said Jones. "What we (still) have today is human trafficking. It's a problem that affects not just Portland, but other cities, too."

In addition to operating the Shanghai Tunnel tour -- which it's done since 1992 -- Cascade Geographic Society holds small concerts in support of anti-human trafficking organizations in downtown Portland. It also developed a social justice program called "Breaking Through the Silence: Human Trafficking Education Center" to combat human trafficking through public education. The nonprofit organization has been working to "preserve, educate and promote the cultural, historical and natural resources of the Cascade Mountain Range" since 1979.

Later this year, the organization will expand its underground footprint by offering a second Shanghai Tunnel tour.

"It will be a separate tour, and it'll include secret passages, doors that lead to nowhere, and artifacts you can't see anywhere else," said Jones. "We also have a shanghai cart -- the last one in existence -- and a washhouse platform on the tour."

According to Jones, the new underground tour is expected to open later this fall.

"It offers a whole new and different experience," Jones said.

Shanghai Tunnel Tours, 6:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 6 & 7:30 p.m., Friday; 4 p.m., 6 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., Saturday; 4:30 p.m., Sunday, tours meet at Hobo's Restaurant, 120 NW Third Ave., Portland, Oregon, $8-$13, 503.622.4798,

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