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Another Portland Blog

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Further down the rabbi...er, Shanghai hole

Back in June I went looking for documented evidence on the legends surrounding the Shanghai Tunnels that run under Old Town. Everything I found on the internet led back to Michael Jones, who runs the Cascade Geographical Society and arranges tunnel tours via the society's webpage. The initial post caught the eye of David Schargel from Portland Walking Tours who provided information suggesting that the tunnels were never, as the legends claims, used as opium dens, torture cells or to lure 19th century sailors into a life of servitude at sea.

I wanted to dive into the Multnomah County Library's online archives but I couldn't because I let my card expire years ago. I finally got around to getting a new one and spent part of the afternoon digging around. The first thing that turned up was a recent essay sitting in eLibrary's historical archives. The author claims that he tracked down a series of interviews conducted by a reporter at the Oregonian sometime in the 1930s. The reporter allegedly spoke with a few kidnapped sailors that lived to tell the tunnel's tales. An excerpt from the essay:

In a series of articles written by reporter Stewart Holbrook for the Oregonian newspaper in the early 1930s, Portland residents who had experienced shanghaiing talked about Turk. One interviewee, A.E. Clarke, told Holbrook about an incident in October 1891. Clarke was wandering down Burnside Street when he met a man who invited him aboard to a riverboat party. Clarke accepted the offer and spent the afternoon drinking and chatting with young women as the boat made its way to Astoria, a port town located where the Columbia River enters the Pacific Ocean. Once there, Clarke was told to sign a passenger list so the crew would know when everyone was back on board, and then he was taken on a "tour" of an iron-hulled, deep-sea square-rigger called T. F. Oakes. At that point, Clarke and the other victims were held at gunpoint, manacled and shoved in a dark hold. It was seven years before Clarke saw Portland again.

As part of his ordeal, Clarke described malnutrition, beatings and an insane captain who executed crew members at random. He also described the first mate, Black Johnson, as tyrannical, and recalled the night at sea when, by prearranged signal, the crew members let go of a sail's line, sending Johnson overboard. Johnson clung to the rope, screaming, until someone pounded his fingers with an iron bar to make him let go.

The essay also included a few historical drawings like the one above of a drugged sailor being hauled onboard a ship.

This one suggests the level of extreme drunkenness found in various 19th century taverns and how they made crimping/shanghaiing easy for kidnappers. I wonder if this drawing was used by Prohibitionists. Sheesh.

From there I used Newsbank to search the Oregonian's archives. Unfortunately, they old go back to 1987. The past few years only turned up a few rundowns on Jones' underground tours but in 1991 columnist Phil Stanford wrote a series of articles on the subject. While his primary source for information was Jones, the articles inspired a few locals to send in their memories. One recollection from a local old timer:

Carl Olson, Southeast: "I just wanted you to know that the tunnels you're talking about -- the Portland caves, I always called them -- really exist. At least they used to. When I came to Portland from Idaho back in the '30s, I asked this friend of mind who happened to be a policeman about the Portland caves. He asked me if I wanted to see them, and, of course, I did.

So he led me down this long flight of stairs to what appeared to me to be a solid stone wall. Then he knocked on the wall and a door opened and a Chinese man told us to come in. And there right in front of us was this beautiful blond, passed out on the floor with an opium pipe beside her.

That was my first time in the tunnels, and I went down many times since. I didn't think anything of it at the time because they were all over. I'm 89 years old now, and it's been a while, but some of them must still be there."

Stanford ended the series with an article on his trip into the tunnels with Jones. At one point, they wound up in the basement of Old Town Pizza and found themselves at a dead-end when one of their colleagues supposedly became "possessed" by the spirit of A.E. Clark himself. An excerpt:

"Robert, are you all right?" I say. Caught in the pale beam of our one remaining light, his eyes seem to be focused on something far away. "Robert, say something. Are you here?"

"Why, of course I am," says Wattenberg, but his voice is somehow different, not the near-whisper we have become accustomed to. "And what's this Robert stuff? My name is A.E. Clark."

"Not the A.E. Clark," we all say in unison, for as students of Portland's dark history, we are all familiar with the name. In 1891, A.E. Clark, then a lad of 21, was Shanghaied off the streets of Portland by none other than Larry Sullivan, the boss of Portland's Shanghai underworld, not to return for another seven years.

Clark was interviewed years later, in 1933, by Stewart Holbrook for a Sunday magazine piece in The Oregonian, and his story appears in all the books on the subject of Shanghaiing.

"The same," says Wattenberg or Clark or whatever his name is, "and as you may have already guessed, I have returned, on this the 100th anniversary of that sad event, to avenge myself and all the other lost and forgotten sailors who were Shanghaied in Portland town these many years ago -- whose souls, until I am successful, are doomed to wander forever across the seven seas. Do I make myself clear?"

"Absolutely, Mr. Clark," I say in my best reportorial manner. "And just how do you propose to do this?"

"What a question," he says. "Why of course, I will have to confront the boss man, Mr. Sullivan himself. Unless, of course, you can you think of a better way. Speak up now."

"But sir," I say, "surely you must be aware that Larry Sullivan has been dead for almost three-quarters of a century now. He died in 1918."

"Do I look like some kind of idiot to you?" he says. "Do you really think I don't know that Sullivan is dead?"

"Then how do you propose to meet up with him? That's all I'm asking."

There is a snicker in the darkness. "Well, I guess I couldn't exactly walk over to where his boarding house used to be, now could I?"

This makes a certain amount of sense, especially since Sullivan's boarding house has long since disappeared.

"Well, no," I say. "You couldn't very well walk over and knock on the door."

"That's right," he cackles, "nobody'd be home. So how do you think I'll do it?"

"I don't know," I say.

"Why, through the tunnels, of course. That's the only way to do it. They're all down there, you know. Bunco Kelly, Liverpool Liz, James Turk and, of course, Larry Sullivan himself. That's where I'll find him. That's why we have to open up this tunnel, don't you see?"

Well, of course, I do. After all, who wants to be responsible for abandoning the souls of several thousand Shanghaied sailors to drift forever across the salty deep.

"That's all I ask, boys," says the voice in the darkness. "Just get me into those tunnels and give me a chance to duke it out with the boss himself. Now is that too much to ask?"

To be continued.

I imagine it was a practical joke at Stanford's expense or maybe he made up this part of the series to give his readers an historical lesson. Whatever it was all about, he never followed-up and the series was never finished [insert creepy theremin music here].

From here, I could run downtown to the Central Library and track down the microfiche copies of those articles from the '30s. I don't know if I'm that curious. In other articles in the series, Stanford claims he found historical recounts of the various no-good-niks that used the tunnels for their wicked deeds. My only goal here was to see if there was anything to the legends beyond Jones' claims and there's plenty. Mission accomplised.

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