Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Checking out Portland's underground

Unfortunately, I don’t have any ghost stories to tell after my trip through Portland’s underground. That will have to wait until that haunted tour.

Apparently, the Portland Walking Tours frowns on conjecture and its guides are made to tell just the truth. And as they said, the truth of Portland’s past is often more scandalous, sexy and scary than a legend anyway. The guides don't work from a script, so each tour is unique.

The tour is rated PG-13 and “not for the faint of heart.”

My friend Brittany and I were both excited for this opportunity, but we almost lost our chance for a spot on the tour because it had sold out already. We were fortunate that another woman had purchased two tickets for Sunday's tour but was unable to use them. She kindly sold them to us for face value.

We started out at Pioneer Courthouse Square, where we purchased our tickets from the kind woman and met up with the rest of the group. It was then a quick MAX ride over to Old Town/Chinatown to begin the trek into the seedy.

We heard tales of discrimation, politics, flooding, displacement, tunnels, crimping and sex and got quite a history lesson along the way.

Our group was led to the waterfront of the Willamette River, which frequently floods its banks, the last time in 1996. Our guide was very insistent that it would happen again, despite measures to add sea walls to contain the water.

We heard about Vanport, a town just north of Portland that was wiped off the map by flooding of the Columbia River in the 1940s. At the time, it was Oregon’s second-largest city, made up mostly of blacks. But in a situation similar to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the city was devastated by floodwaters and the population was displaced.

May of Vanport’s residents moved to an area known as Albina, but they were displaced yet again when a new highway was built through there.

Portland is not a terribly diverse city, the tour guide noted, and some of that stems from its unwelcoming stance to minorities throughout the years. Another black eye for the city came during World War II when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps.

A headline in The Oregonian from the time even proclaimed, “Portland to be first Jap-free city.” A memorial plaza now lines the waterfront. A copy of the Bill of Rights is etched in stone as a reminder that those amendments were forgotten for the Japanese. The plaza also contains etchings of poems from those who were held in the camps and an apology from President Reagan.

Also along the waterfront, we were told of the process of crimping, sometimes known as shanghaiing. When ships came into port, the crew members would often hit the saloons and flophouses and not come back.

But the ship’s captain needed men to do the labor on board, so he would turn to nefarious dealings to fill the slots. During a saloon visit, a poor unsuspecting man would be slipped a Mickey or so-called Kelly’s Comforter. While he was passed out, he would be taken to the ship, and the captain would pay about $20 for him.

When he woke up in a strange new floating bed, he’d be too far out to sea, to escape in most cases and be forced to accept his fate as a ship worker.
This practice has long been tied to the tunnels beneath the city, but our guide said there’s little historical evidence to suggest they were actually used for crimping. He says the term shanghai tunnels didn’t show up until about 1975, about 100 years after the practice had ended.

Though clearly a despicable practice, I did admire the ingenuity of one such crimper, Bunko Kelly. He was sent off to find a crew member for one captain but returned instead with a cigar store Indian wrapped in a blanket. It was a few days before the captain had realized he’d been hoodwinked.

He wasn’t the only one who fell for one of Bunko’s scams. One night while walking the streets of Portland, Bunko heard moaning coming from one of the tunnels, along with a foul smell. Upon further investigation, he found several men down below, most of them dead or dying.

Apparently, they had plans to break into a saloon and drink the spirits, but they got the tunnels confused. Instead, they forced their way into an undertaker’s office. And what they thought was alcohol was actually embalming fluid.

Bunko carried the dead men one by one to a ship and loaded them on board, telling the captain he got him lots of new staff. So happy was the captain with Bunko’s efforts that he paid $30 a head, instead of the usually $20. There's no telling what happened days later when the captain realized the truth.

Not all stories on the tour were so grave. We learned that Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” uses things he saw growing up in Portland in the show. Blinky, the three-eyed fish, for example, came from the Willamette River. And Flanders is the name of a street in Old Town.

And we made a stop at Dan and Louis Oyster Bar. We were there to check out some sistern and hear about the crooked dealings of volunteer fire departments. But I was thrilled to see the world’s largest oyster cracker, which is another curiosity that I got to scratch off my list. The cracker was baked for the oyster bar on the occasion of its 75th anniversary back in 1982, at which time the restaurant had served more than 3 million oysters. The cracker is at least a foot tall and a little cracked, but I think that was the highlight of the tour for me.

We also trekked over to Voodoo Doughnuts. I had already been there (as detailed in a previous blog), but this time, there was a wedding about to happen. The owners double as ordained ministers and perform marriage ceremonies under the giant doughnut. On Mondays, the place also offers free Swahili lessons. And occasionally, performers give concerts in the small space.

We were also guided past Saturday Market and Skidmore Fountain. Pharmacist Stephen Skidmore left $5,000 in his will for the fountain, but it wasn’t enough money. Other businessmen were asked to donate, and brewery owner Henry Weinhard agreed to kick in $10,000. But he had one stipulation. On the day the fountain opened, he wanted it to be filled with beer that he would pump from his brewery about two blocks away.

Under his plan, the fire department would use its hoses to transport the beer, but fire officials saw major problems with that. They feared that people would poke holes in the hose and suck the beer out, so that plan was nixed. Beer never did flow in the fountain, after all.

Other interesting facts we picked up: Portland has more breweries than anywhere else. Portland has more adult businesses per capita than anywhere else, thanks to Oregon’s liberal free speech laws. Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole and Kurt Cobain’s widow, got her start stripping at a club in Portland. Very few, if any, Asians live in Chinatown. The streets in Portland were designed to face
magnetic north on a compass when it was originally laid out by founders Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy. But when Captain John Couch came along with his addition, his streets pointed toward true north. Walking down Ankeny to Second Street, it's easy to see where things went crooked. At this intersection stands a rare five-sided building, as well, a product of the new layout. It's also at that intersection where perhaps the only true shanghai tunnel is located. The bar there is called Shanghai Tunnel.

Couch was so enamered with Pettygrove and Lovejoy’s plans to number their streets that he decided to use the alphabet. However, other areas were annexed into the city, and there were four A streets. So, Couch’s streets became Ankeny, Burnside, Couch, Davis and so forth.

We ended our tour at Old Town Pizza, which is supposedly haunted by resident ghost Nina. According to the menu, Nina had been sold into a life of prostitution and worked at the site, a former hotel. Missionaries came along and convinced Nina to share information with them in exchange for her freedom. But before that could happen, she was pushed down an elevator shaft, and some say she never left. I guess I had a ghost story, after all.

We did get to take a quick tour into the tunnels below the pizza place, but some of the mystique was worn off after learning that they probably weren't used for crimping after all. And there were no run-ins with Nina, either. However, I did get some photos of the tunnels with my digital camera, and it appears as if some orbs show up in a few of the frames.

I had a lot of fun and learned lots about Portland I never would've guessed. I didn't tell all the secrets, however. You'll have to take the tour to find out the rest for yourself. The same company also has Best of Portland tour that shines a more favorable light on the city and its inhabitants and an Epicurean Excursion through the Pearl District, sampling some of the best food the city has to offer.

Next up, I check out the curiosities in Astoria, including the bridge to nowhere and Trajan's Column.

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