Historians say the story of Portland’s infamous Shanghai tunnels likely is a myth

Portland-area historians have found virtually nothing in their research to back up the notion that hustlers used a tunnel network for kidnapping men. A few question whether tunnels, beyond some simple connections among basements, ever existed.

Although the city does have a history of “shanghaiing,” or “crimping” as the practice was called, local historians say the first recorded mention of the tunnel connection didn’t come until the 1970s — decades after the practice peaked. The types of historical evidence academics and researchers would normally expect to find are missing.

“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.”

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

Jones insists that he will prove the tunnels’ existence and their role in supporting Portland’s Shanghai trade. Eventually.

For years, he has said he was working on a book documenting the tunnels’ history. Now he says he aims to release a book in the next year, including information and documentation from a family who he said has photos and other evidence.

Jones refuses to disclose or share any of the documents before then.

Full Story: The Oregonian.

Jones has been giving these tours, for $13 a head, for over 10 years and has yet to release a shred of evidence. Also, the official web site provides no information about Jones’s credentials.

I’ve been on one of these tours: it mostly involved walking around in dusty basements and listening to ghost stories. Each group gets to pick which version of the tour they want: the historic version or the ghost version. Guess which version most people want to hear. Jones did mix in some history with our tour, but from the sounds of it it was just as much fiction as the ghost stories.

Even before reading this article, I’ve suggested that people skip the tour and just visit the Shanghai Tunnel bar, where for the cost of a drink you can see what these Old Town basements look like.

19 Comments

  1. As an educator I would always tell my students, “science is what you believe when you hear it.” I think that holds true for this blog. History is what you believe when you read it.

    It appears that the real story about the Oregonian article has not been told at all. The story behind this article is “who owns the history”, and why is a not for profit organization under attack when a for profit company is doing the same thing? By that I mean, if there is not a lot of published written history, but research has uncovered much of the history, then who owns the research? If you are a scientific researcher and you spend much of your life on one project, would you just give your research away without publishing it first? I think not. Maybe people like “Jacqueline Peterson Loomis, founder of the Old Town History Project and a history professor at Washington State University Vancouver”, should seek out the people that have had their lives changed or ended by the practices that started in Portland. Maybe it would be a good idea for the person who wrote this blog to do the same.

    In full disclosure, I am a “volunteer” guide for the “Portland Underground”. I have a BS in Education and an MS in Natural and Applied Sciences. I have been a teacher, NASA contract educator, and NASA contract scientist through L3 Communications. I am not writing this under the authority of any of the businesses listed or the Cascade Geographic Society. If you want to know about me Google my name as ?Dennis Christopher? NASA. If you use just my name you will get a lot about the actor with the same name.

    On several occasions I have had people come up to me and tell, before the tours, about what happened to their sister, brother, father or grandfather. They have named people, places, dates and times. So why isn’t there a lot in writing? Actually there is. You need to go to some of the papers in other regions of Oregon to find stories.

    Want to guess why you are not going to find much in Portland papers? The story of the Portland Underground is a story of kidnapping, murder, drugs, prostitution and white slavery. Who would keep track of people they had shanghaied? Why would a city want to advertise that they were not a place to visit?

    If the author or the blogger had bothered to do research on the Portland Underground they would have found that there were tunnels. Most of the tunnels have been filled in by street renovations. Most tunnels have been closed off by business owners. What business would want their storage areas open to other businesses or people getting in from other basements? What business owner would want other businesses or other people to have access through these areas to their business at night?

    Did the author go through the entire balance sheet for the Cascade Geographic Society or just throw out what they thought would help their one sided story? Did the author bother to mention Portland Walking Tours does the same thing? Portland Walking Tours, unlike the Cascade Geographic Society, is a FOR PROFIT organization. The Portland Walking tours only drive is MONEY. The Cascade Geographic Society is dedicated to the research, preservation, restoration and documentation of the culture and history of the City of Portland. What do you think it would cost to keep up the Portland Underground as well as two other properties they are renovating for people to visit?

    Did you know that the Cascade Geographic Society does not own any of the property they help to preserve and restore? The current property is owned by Naito Properties and leased to Hobo’s Restaurant and the Boiler Room. These fine people understand the history and culture and for a very, very small fee (for the recovery of utilities) they help to entice people from all over the world to come to Portland for experience the history and culture.

    Portland has been featured on the History Channel, Travel Channel, Sci-Fi, Comedy Central and the Food Channel because of the work of the Cascade Geographic Society. Just recently the History Channel did an entire hour on Portland in their “Cities of the Underworld” series. Before moving from the East Coast for a job in the Portland Area I knew a lot about the history of Portland because of the work of the Cascade Geographic Society.

    Did you know that the Cascade Geographic Society did not originally do tours when they started working on the Underground? Did you know that Michael P. Jones has spent his entire life from the time he was seven exploring the tunnel system? Did you know that those 6,000 people that tour the Underground spend money in local establishments?

    If you are going to tell the story, tell it all. After all, you know what they say about opinions.

  2. “As an educator I would always tell my students, ‘science is what you believe when you hear it.'”

    In science, the burden of proof is on those making claims. Everything Jones says may well be true, but if he won’t offer any evidence why should anyone believe him?

    “If you are a scientific researcher and you spend much of your life on one project, would you just give your research away without publishing it first?”

    If I were a researcher spending my entire life on one project, I would like to think I’d have published at least some of my findings by now. If there are reasons that Jones can’t release anything yet, or share his work with other researchers, that’s unfortunate but fine. But he can’t expect me, or anyone else, to believe anything he says until he offers some evidence.

    “If the author or the blogger had bothered to do research on the Portland Underground they would have found that there were tunnels.”

    If you had bothered to read the Oregonian story you would see that it is mentioned that the tunnels do exist.

    “Did the author go through the entire balance sheet for the Cascade Geographic Society or just throw out what they thought would help their one sided story?”

    I only read the Oregonian story, I haven’t seen the balance sheet. What is so upsetting here, though? All that was said is that according to the sheet 6,000 people a year visit the tunnels.

    “Did you know that the Cascade Geographic Society does not own any of the property they help to preserve and restore?”

    Yes. So what? I didn’t accuse the CGS of owning any of the property and neither did the Oregonian.

    “Did the author bother to mention Portland Walking Tours does the same thing?”

    I didn’t mention them because I haven’t heard of them. Thank you for bringing them to my attention. They make some interesting claims on their site that are worthy of follow-up.

    “Want to guess why you are not going to find much in Portland papers? The story of the Portland Underground is a story of kidnapping, murder, drugs, prostitution and white slavery. Who would keep track of people they had shanghaied? Why would a city want to advertise that they were not a place to visit?”

    The Oregonian doesn’t deny that crimping occurred, they only say that there’s no evidence that the tunnels were used for crimping. The Oregonian also points out that most other sources for information use Jones as their only source, and Jones is not forthcoming with evidence.

    The Oregonian also notes that Portland tourism officials promote the tours. So where’s the conspiracy?

    “Did you know that the Cascade Geographic Society did not originally do tours when they started working on the Underground? Did you know that Michael P. Jones has spent his entire life from the time he was seven exploring the tunnel system? Did you know that those 6,000 people that tour the Underground spend money in local establishments?”

    That Jones claims to have spent his whole life exploring the tunnels is mentioned in the article. The rest is irrelevant to the question of the truth of Jones’s claims.

  3. Also, here’s a relevant link to what happens when researchers shun outside review: http://www.technoccult.com/archives/2007/12/04/gospel-of-judas-translation-by-national-geographic-may-be-incorrect/

  4. Dennis,

    Before going forward let me say that I have no involvement in either the media, this blog or these two companies.

    Klintron’s post AND the Oregonian article are about tunnels. When I used to live in Portland, I went on both tours in late 2006 and Jones’ tours goes so far as to say “you’re in the tunnels now” while the Portland Walking Tours questioned the tunnels existence while we supposedly in the same basement. This was almost a year before the article. I looked into it more (just online) and I agreed a while back that, while shanghaiing was true, the tunnels is a myth from your group.

    Just like Jacqueline Peterson Loomis said, “It’s not good history.” IMHO, it’s worse – you’re an educational non-profit telling ghost stories. If I had more time, I’d report you to the IRS. There’s no educational purpose in ghost tours. I’d even question whether it’s all-volunteer or not, like we were told last year – someone must be earning money from it.

    >Nancy

  5. Illusion of Credibility

    January 6, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    When reading about history, I always find it helpful to assume the worst. Let’s suppose that nobody had any stories of disappeared relatives, there was no documentation, and no remaining physical evidence in the Portland area; from the land where slavery, racial genocide, and various other perfidies occurred, would this seem out of place? Slavery still exists. White slavery translates to enslavement of elites, or persons not normally thought of as candidates for slavery, which says more about the writer than the institution. If a wealthy white woman is kidnapped off the streets, is her fate any worse than someone born into the virtual slavery of crushing third world poverty, or some out-of-town drunk nicked at a bar?

    People were shanghaied for several reasons. There was a market for them, the market was in close proximity to the source of supply, Portland, and the individuals taken were people who would not be missed, or sought after. People disappeared, and still disappear, all of the time, especially in big cities.

    I would not be surprised to learn that this practice still takes place, even if it were alleged to take place in the U.S.

  6. Illusion of Credibility – once again, no one is denying that crimping took place in Portland. What’s being questioned is whether the tunnels under Old Town were used for crimping, and whether Jones’s stories about the basements he takes his tours to are true. Jones tries to distract us with conspiracy theory while never offering any evidence to support his claims.

    “I would not be surprised to learn that this practice still takes place, even if it were alleged to take place in the U.S.”

    It’s called “human trafficking” now and much ink has been spilled on the subject. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking though at least one researchers questions just how bad the situation is: http://www.reason.com/news/show/124093.html

  7. Thanks for your insight Nancy. By the by, it turns out that the “competing tour” offered by David Schargel mentioned in the Oregonian article is in fact Portland Walking Tours. So, Mr. Christopher Portland Walking Tours does NOT do “the same thing.”

  8. Ok, so it actually seems that you agree with much of it.

    I may have been a little rough on that first response. I apologize if I came across as attacking you.

    I think the article in the Oregonian was a cheap shot. Here is something that most people don’t know about that article. Several people called and said that they wanted to give first hand information to the author and were turned down.

    So, let me make a couple of comments. I will go back to doing research. Do the research yourself and publish or comment or keep quiet. Don’t comment on something that you or others have not researched. Let’s go back to the one piece that you threw out about the Bible. Anyone remember when the Bible was written? How much of the Bible can be proven? I don’t want to start a discussion about religion but if you want to make an analogy…. Who was around for those conversations? Did they write them down to keep a record? History is not always recorded in stone. Sometimes it is who you believe when you hear it.

    The Oregonian accuses the Cascade Geographic Society, in not so many words, of making up the information to do tours and make money. The point is that the tours were never part of the original plan. It was requested. Any money collected goes into the CGS which is a federally authorized not for profit. There are other groups that are federally authorized for profit groups. I have nothing against capitalism but lets just make sure we set the stage.

    My point about Portland Walking Tours is that they DO the same thing. They give tours of the history and culture of the Old North End. The difference is that they exploit what is there. They are not dedicated to education, restoration, preservation or documentation. They may have been mentioned in the article, but certainly not by name.

    Nancy, just a little FYI. Scientific Paranormal Research has been around for as long as recorded history. Paranormal Research is a sanctioned activity. I tend to spend my time there collecting scientific data.

    There is only one story we tell and that is documented and everyone knows what it is. All tours are 80% culture and history. The other 20% is determined by the group. When I do a paranormal tour I give the 80% plus tell about things that have happened to me that I can not explain. Observation is scientifically accepted as data. I also tell people about what happens on tours that can be explained.

    (Go to the following site and listen to the piece on Moans and Lights. http://www.ideocast.com/archive.asp?aid=10130
    We can document a cold spot only inches in diameter that was 18 degrees colder than the rest of the room and was there for several minutes. That defies the laws of thermodynamics.)

    On the other hand, when I listen to the other tour what I hear is, and this is no joke, “if the light on your EMF meter turns red that means that Nina is here.” Soon after that someone will say that it turned red. Then you hear, from the guide, “oh, Nina you are here! Hi Nina.” For those of you that don’t know, Nina is a spirit.

    Let me tell you that the room that they go into is full of EMF. There are refrigerators above and compressors in the area. That light will turn red no matter what.

    Also, they say that if you see bright spots in your images they are called orbs and are spirits. Sorry guys. What you are seeing is dust just in front of the lens. The floor of the area is covered in river silt.

    Let me go back to two points.

    1. Do your own research and quit getting your information from people that wait for research to be published.
    2. Preserve, inform, educate, document, restore. Don’t exploit.

    PS If anyone that has commented would like a VIP of the Underground I would be happy to arrange it at my cost (which by the way is the full cost). After we can discuss all you want over a couple of glasses of the local libation. Unlike the rest of you, you know who I am and how to send me message.

  9. Hello all,

    My name is David and I’m the founder of Portland Walking Tours. I was told about this blog and wanted to see what was being said. As a student of history, I have been saying for over a decade (and was one of the people quoted in the Oregonian as saying) that there’s no evidence for shanghaiing through tunnels in Portland. Somehow though, I am often the one being attacked and that last posting by Dennis Christopher got to me.

    The thing that bothers me the most in this debate is Dennis Christopher’s attacks against Portland Walking Tours in matters that he has no idea what he is talking about. His multiple statements are the very living definition of libel AND slander and I ask him (and everyone else from Cascade Geographic Society) to stop doing that.

    It really sucks that I need to (again) take the time to correct things that Cascade Geographic Society volunteers say. Things Dennis got wrong:

    1) We DO NOT do the same thing as Cascade Geographic Society.

    2) We DO NOT tell mis-truth’s or repeat things that are “not good history.” Look at any of our marketing materials and you will clearly see that we tell people that our “Underground Portland” tour stays away deal in myths, rumors, or legends. We spend less than 1/3 of our time in the exact same basement just to point what’s real and what’s not. The so-called opium den, trap door, cigar store Indian, and holding cell were all added (by Dennis’ group) to make the basements seem more interesting. And, after all, as Klintron says, it really is a series of dusty basements.

    3) Dennis Christopher has obviously never been on our tours, but (is his last comment) takes delight in mis-quoting things that are supposedly said on a late-night entertainment tour that is marketed exclusively as non-history. By portraying us in a negative light with false information, you are libeling us.

    4) We don’t exploit anything. All 15 employees here are dedicated to preserving, informing, educating others about Portland. It even says that in our mission statement. What’s wrong with being for-profit? One thing Dennis got right: We don’t document for scientific publication. But then again, isn’t that what the original Oregonian article is about. Stop hiding behind a non-profit argument (while trying to justify doing ghost tours. Hehe!)

    Dennis, if you or anyone else from your group, wants to comment on what’s being said negatively about YOUR tours and that others say “it’s not good history,” then go for it. But do it without libel and slander towards others. I like good folklore, but the real history behind Portland’s nefarious past is fascinating. Why bloody it with false stories and negativity towards my group. The posting here (and the Oregonian article) was not about Portland Walking Tours, it was about the lack of documentation for shanghaiing through tunnels. Put up or shut up. Show the evidence.

  10. true, false, or meaningless?

    don’t turn down the chance to see soriah perform down there, if it comes up.

    he does a little haunting of his own…

    xoxo, z

  11. The link to the Oregonian article so many people are talking about here is dead.

    Can somebody please provide a copy of the original text as printed in the Oregonian so we’ll all be on the same page please?

  12. Hello, I read about the phenomena “shanghai tunnels” and found it fascinating. After a while I got confused over the lack of authoritative sources. I was interested when I saw there was a article about historians correcting some of thw myths. But the article cant be read any more – does any of you know why it is so?

  13. I’m trying to find out

  14. I updated the broken link in the wikiarticle to point to the webarchive-copy instead. Maybe it could be an idea to keep an extra eye on this wiki-page in the future. Without being paranoid, it really seems like there is some local interest in keeping some of the myths “untouched” and critics out of the public.

    If any have links to some authority sources (researchers in the field of academic historic studies, not any private researcher connected to the portland tourist industri-society) thats written about this subject, it would be interesting to read here and/or on the Wikipedia.page on this subject. (hope you understand my bad english) Cheers!

  15. also, what I find strange is all theese people connected to this private organisation “portland society” who seems t o be connected to the local tourist industry. And than almost ALL information on the internet is related to this organisation.

    What I dont like is their claim for truth and insinuations about them as a academic serious part in the debate. There must be historians from a independent academic field that can falsify or proof the organisations storys about the shanghai tunnels??

  16. I e-mailed Helen Jung, who wrote the Oregonian story. Here is her response:

    “Thanks for your note. I believe our standard practice is to take down links after a certain period of time. I’m unsure about the amount of time something is available for free online, so I am copying this to our managing editor as well.”

  17. Hi everyone,

    What an exciting little discussion we have here. It seems that all the interested parties are present, so what I’m wondering is this… Is it possible to tour the tunells without the walking groups?

    Can an interested Portlander just wander down and have a look? I must also say, I’m pretty curious about the financials of the non profit as well ;).

    Thanks!

    Cathy

  18. Unfortunately Cathy (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the area has been heavily redeveloped for its entire settled existence, leaving little physical evidence.

    Specifically, most of the nastiest of the tunnels would have been destroyed at the time of the Harbor wall construction (c1929), or, following that, the Harbor freeway (mid 1960s).

    The three blocks closest to the river between the Steel Bridge and the Hawthorne Bridge were rebuilt repeatedly and to a depth sufficient to demolish all previous construction, leaving only the inner Old Town area intact. The worst of Old Town by all accounts was destroyed when the harbor wall came through.

    As a result of this constant redevelopment, tours of any kind are heavily dependent on cooperation of property owners, which has perhaps led to the kind of profit-seeking endeavours and ridiculous political feuding we see today.

    Your best bet as others have mentioned is just to visit the Shanghai Tunnel bar near Saturday Market and have a drink, to see one of the better-built parts of the old underground.

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