The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shanghai Tunnels of Portland

I spent a good chunk of last week and the weekend in Portland, Oregon with Kay (and got to visit Kirin and Laura while I was there, which was pretty groovy). I arrived home on Sunday night, and then had to go to San Francisco for Tuesday and Wednesday for a seminar on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). So, I ain’t been home much lately. On top of that, I will be gone for two weeks at the beginning of October to do fieldwork in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests. So, I am going to be MIA for a chunk of the near future as well.

Hopefully, I’ll be home more often come November – especially as I spent last November and December freezing my ass off while being pursued by bulls and chased by ranchers out in Tulare County – I don’t want a repeat of last year.

Well, regardless, Portland was fun. We stayed at a trendy hotel that had clearly formerly been a run-down “pay-by-the-hour” sort of hotel (there was even faded but still visible graffiti on the lid of the toilet in our room. Kay thought the place was great, I was rather less enthusiastic, partially because I am not too keen on the “let’s ape the tackiest elements of ’50-s through ‘70’s interior decoration” aesthetic that seems to have become inexplicably popular with the hipsters lately, and partially because there was a rather loud nightclub directly underneath the hotel, making rest difficult to obtain prior to midnight (yeah, I’m turning into an old fogey, get over it). Still, it’s the sort of place that it’s worth saying “Yep, I’ve stayed there!” Who knows, I might even go back if they resolve the noise issues with the night club – the price was good and the rooms were clean and comfortable, if odd-looking. However, having your entire room vibrate with crappy, repetitive “music” is not conducive to sleep.

What was cool, though, were some of the things we did while in Portland (get your mind out of the gutter, Scott). We ended up on two oddball walking tours (one of the crime spots in Portland and one of allegedly “haunted” locations), went to a science museum, toured a submarine, and visited the friends described below. Oh, and with the exception of seeing Kirin and Laura, Kay planned all of these activities – either she was really trying to cater to my tastes or we are abnormally good travelling companions.

Other than seeing my friends, the walking tours were highlights of the trip. Both took us into the remnants of the tunnels below the city, so as you can imagine, my archaeologist heart was beating happily to the smell of sub-surface soil. We descended into the tunnels for two reasons – one was that they are supposedly haunted (for someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, I have an awfully weird fascination with ghost stories) and the other was that these tunnels had been important both to the official history of shipping in the City of Portland (they were the primary means by which goods were brought from the waterfront to businesses, and served as drainage tunnels when the city flooded) and in the not-so-official history of Portland (underground tunnels would be used to smuggle goods ranging from legal goods on which one didn’t want to pay taxes all the way out to the strictly illegal).

The tunnels are a rather unique and fascinating archaeological treasure chest, as they contain the remains of both the legitimate and the shady-to-outright-criminal in one place, and they are often discussed among west coast archaeologist for this very reason, though few of us get a chance to ever work in them (in all of these sense, these are also rather like the ships buried underneath the city streets of San Francisco – a topic that I will write about at a later time).

The tunnels are often referred to as “Shanghai tunnels” because they are reputed to have been used to “Shanghai” sailors. For those unfamiliar, the term “Shanghai” comes from a practice common during the 19th century and earlier, when unscrupulous sea captains would hire the owners of land-based businesses (primarily hotels, flophouses, and brothels) to obtain strong, able-bodied men for forced labor at sea. This was sometimes done through trickery (someone might be fooled into thinking that they were signing a contract for a hotel room, when they were really signing a contract for service on a ship), through violence (people were sometime kidnapped at gun or knife-point and forced onto a ship), and sometimes by means of drugging a victim or waiting until they passed out through over-consumption of alcohol. The interesting thing is that, while it is often claimed that the tunnels were used to move the victims out to the ships, there is little evidence that this was actually a typical use of the tunnels – the city was so corrupt during the 19th century that these people could be moved out to the ships on the city streets. Nonetheless, other cities have similar tunnels, and in a few of them, the tunnels were clearly used for this purpose – and as the tunnels were the most direct route from the city buildings out to the waterfront, it seems likely that they were used for transporting human cargo as well as other contraband.

Regardless, the tunnels were used to house merchandise for the various shops, bars, and saloons in Portland, and also housed opium dens and the lower-class brothels. As a result, the dirt in these tunnels contain a good deal of archaeological materials relating to 19th century mercantile activity and vice activity (from what I could tell, they were unpaved, and as flooding frequently filled them with water, they contains sediments deposited during the 19th and early 20th centuries).

I’ll post some photos later, as well as share some of the ghost stories, but the story of the tunnels was pretty cool, and I thought I should share.


mnsc said...

Oh my, the Jupiter? Brave soul that you are. . . Had a chance to stay there on my last visit, but decided I'd rather visit a club than sleep in one. Great city though.

If only there decent jobs. . .

Anthroslug said...

I think it's hilarious that by description alone, you knew it was the Jupiter. Yep, you are correct.

And yeah, Portland is a great city with a lousy job market.

Your older sister who is much wiser than thee said...

I'm all over drugging a victim and forcing them onto a ship. Where do I sign up?

ordinaryjanet said...

so where are the photos?