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Portland's buried truth
Lurid stories of kidnappers seizing drunken or drugged men and whisking them through a network of underground tunnels are a cornerstone of old Portland lore. The kidnappers, as legend has it, sold the hapless men to ship captains desperate for crewmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The so-called Shanghai tunnels have been immortalized by travel writers, television shows and even by the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, which dangles the story as a lure to out-of-towners.
The only problem is that the stories, as beloved as they have become, seem to be more fiction than fact.
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."
But Michael P. Jones, founder of the Portland Underground Tours and unofficial keeper of the Shanghai Tunnels story, stands by the dramatic accounts. He said he will release the proof with a forthcoming book and maintains that the city is just trying to cover up its shameful past -- which he said persisted until the 1940s.
"This is all politics," he said. "This is how it was in the past and how it is today. . . . To deny that this happened is part of its history."
No tunnels in records
While San Francisco was the "world's capital of shanghaiing" a century ago, Portland at times rivaled the Bay Area for its kidnapping and selling of seamen, according to Richard H. Dillon's 1961 book, "Shanghaiing Days."
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