The Myth of Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels

One of the frustrations of operating tours in Portland Oregon is the myth of there being Shanghai Tunnels in Portland, Oregon.  Not only has this myth been propagated locally, national cable networks have been tricked into spreading a story that simply isn’t true.

Portland’s waterfront until 1929 was dominated by wharves for the docking and loading of the 600+ riverboats that worked the wheat and passenger trades on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Portland’s waterfront featured double-decker wharves — a lower level for use in the fall and winter when the rivers were low, and an upper level for use in the spring and summer when the rivers were full of water, some forty feet higher. Deep draft blue water ships stayed in Astoria until about 1890 when the first dredging of the rivers was complete.

                Until the 1970s, there was never a word printed or said about Shanghai Tunnels in Portland.  The tunnel myth was started in the 1970’s by a group of students from Portland State University who started a tour company based on the non-existent tunnels.  Led be a local man, Mike Jones, the group would take customers on tours of the basements of local businesses in our Old Town area, claiming they were touring part of a tunnel.  They played upon the ignorance of Portlanders and non-Portlanders alike who didn’t know that where the tunnels were supposedly located was nowhere near to where the tall ships of the 1890’s Wheat Fleet docked.  The tunnels were in downtown-Old Town where riverboat warehouses and wharves that used to line the river front – i.e. paddle wheel steamers that transported bagged wheat down to Astoria, 110 miles downriver at the mouth of the Columbia. Ocean going ships were limited to Astoria until about 1890 when dredging of the rivers opened up Portland to deep draft ocean going vessels.

                The myth of the tunnels ebbed and waned over the past fifty years, mostly as business owners have tired of the tours causing disruptions to their businesses.  The city’s bureau of public works gets calls almost daily from people wanting to tour the tunnels.  Employees have to tell them as politely as they can that Shanghai Tunnels never were a part of this city.  There ain’t any and never have been.  By all reports it’s a constant bother to city employees – just as it’s a bother to tour operators who know the true story.

                When people ask me if our tours visit a Shanghai Tunnel, I try to explain the situation as best and as politely as possible.  Most people take it stride — a few get upset and angry and accuse us of hiding the truth.  It is truly a bother.

                For the record, our tours are based on the best research available from a wide variety of sources and are vetted by a university history Professor and author for accuracy.

                What else can I say?

For schedule, availability and reservations call

503 298-3661

SinCity Portland Walking Tours

Well researched * Historically accurate * Typically Portland

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