VanCougar reporter explores local tourist attraction

Next time you visit Old Town Portland, look down. There, under your feet, lurk the ghosts of historic events. The Portland Underground tour provides a peek into Portland’s past – and it is not always a pleasant story. But the tour itself can be an entertaining way to spend an afternoon while learning about local lore.

Old Town Pizza and Hobo’s Restaurant are both housed in the old Merchant Hotel at 226 Davis Street in Portland’s China Town. This former hotel sits atop a dark secret of human abduction.

Portland Underground tour guides say that the California Gold Rush impacted cargo ships bound for Asia during the 1800s. Many able-bodied seamen would jump ship and head for the gold fields. When their ships came up short on sailors, captains turned to middlemen, known as “crimps,” which they hired to supply the sailing vessel with laborers. Crimps were paid by the by the number of men they could supply to ship captains in need.

Legend tells that trap doors, known as “dead falls” were built into the floors of Portland taverns. The traps were set to spring open when unsuspecting patrons stood in the wrong spot at the right time. Once through the trapdoor, unsuspecting tavern-goers were imprisoned in holding cells with bars so close together that fingers could not fit through. Inebriated from the tavern overhead, or drugged by their captors, these victims seldom tried to escape. Just the same, the tour guides tell that victims’ shoes were removed and broken glass was strewn along the passages between the cells to discourage escape.

The basements of several Old Town buildings were connected so goods could be safely and quickly moved from one building to another. Victims were allegedly moved through the same passageways to work as slaves aboard the cargo ships docked at the Willamette waterfront.
Joseph Kelly, a famous Portland crimp, wrote an autobiography about his experiences while imprisoned in Salem, Ore. In his account, Kelly reports having abducted as many as 50 men in four hours.  Kelly went to jail for killing a business partner and served 13 years in state prison.

Although there exists little archeological evidence to support the legends of underground crimping in Portland basements, first-hand accounts have been recorded.

One story tells of a large and renowned clipper ship built for size and speed in 1851. When the ship moved too slowly to please the captain, he beat many of the crimped men on board with a mattock. Punishment became more severe as the journey wore on. During a storm, crimped sailors were ordered to the tops of the sails during a storm at sea. Four fell to their deaths. When the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay, crimped sailors jumped overboard and made their way to shore. As word of mistreatment and murder aboard The Challenger spread, an angry crowd gathered at the dock, not to welcome the ship, but to hang the captain and first mate.

Those who boarded the ship testified to finding the corpses of five crimped men who had been beaten or shot to death.  The captain and first mate managed to escape the angry crowd.

Crimping came to an abrupt end in the late 1880s. Steamships took the place of clippers and slave laborers lacked the know-how to operate them. For more information on Portland Underground tours, visit shanghaitunnels.info.

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