History Lesson

Will Portland's Shanghai Tunnels Close for Good?

After pandemic closures, Underground Tours operators are looking for a way forward.

By Michelle Harris June 13, 2022

One of the secret spots under our city

If you’ve ever stepped foot in the Shanghai Tunnels—the network of decrepit tunnels that run below the streets of Old Town—then you’re familiar with the nefarious history that clings to Portland’s dank, dark underbelly.  

As legend has it, the men who once over-imbibed in Portland’s rowdy saloons, pool halls, and gambling parlors could wake up to find themselves consigned to service at sea, having been slipped a drop or two of “knockout powder” in their drinks. They were then smuggled through a network of subterranean tunnels that led directly to the waiting waterfront, where they were sold to sea captains in need of deckhands. (The historical record is murky on just how much of this is fact and how much is fiction. It’s also possible that the tunnels were simply used as a forum for gambling and other illicit activities.) 

Perhaps no one has spent more time exploring Portland’s underground than the late Michael P. Jones, whose obsession with the tunnels began in 1958 when he was just seven years old. The eccentric curator and founder of the Cascade Geographic Society—the nonprofit that operates the Shanghai Tunnels Underground Tours, long a popular entry on Portland’s tourism circuit—passed away unexpectedly in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic.  

The next two years were tough on the nonprofit, given the shutdown of tours, their main source of income. Now, the remaining volunteers say they might need to close up shop for good, if current fundraising efforts don’t pan out. (A virtual fundraiser was held on June 2, 2022, and there are plans for more in the future.)  

“They were the original and only authentic tours of the Shanghai Tunnels and the only ones to present the true history,” says Halie Meckley, who has been a volunteer with Cascade Geographic Society for 12 years.  

For the nonprofit, founded by Jones in 1978, the excavation and restoration has been an ongoing project for 30 years.  

“Michael was the original starter of the Shanghai Tunnel tours,” Meckley says of Jones, who dug through city archives and apparently gathered first-hand accounts through interviews with people who’d been “shanghaied” as well as their family members. “That information is used on our tours and is also what forms the base of knowledge of the underground in general,” she says. “No one else has even tried to do that research.”  

The nonprofit faced another blow when Hobo’s Restaurant, where they’d been hosting tours for 20 years, closed due to the pandemic. “So, we lost that space,” Meckley says. “Twenty-eight years' worth of work.” 

Even with the lack of funding, Cascade Geographic Society volunteers say they are continuing their restoration of the underground that sits beneath the Museum of the Shanghai Tunnels and hope to reopen the museum to the public 

“We are working towards that,” says Meckley. “It really is a legacy. So, it is not something that we are going to just let drop.”  

Those looking to help the organization reach their goals can donate here

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