Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shanghai Dock: A Portland Mystery Solved

I promised that I would have Guest Bloggers to post here at Weird Portland and here is the first. I would like to introduce you to my friend Barney Blalock. Barney is as obsessed with Portland's history as I am, if you need proof you should check out his website. He has also just published a book at History Press 
 I suggest you all go buy it right away. You won't be sorry.

Barney has a very personal style of writing about history that I enjoy a lot. In this post he writes with tongue firmly in cheek and he pokes one of Portland's most persistent, and silly, myths firmly in the eye. I think you will enjoy it.

When I was a lad, way back in the 1960s, Portland had the best surplus store on the face of the earth. It was located below the Ross Island Bridge on the west side in an enormous steel and sheet metal structure belonging to a place with the evocative name, Zidells Alaska Explorations. It was where all the salvageable material from the dismantling of liberty ships was sold to the Public—kitchen items, hatch covers, nautical charts, uniforms, fire fighting asbestos suits, brass port holes, you name it—all the cool stuff a high school sophomore could desire. My friend and I even tried to buy a life boat for $50, but they refused to put it in the river for us. God knows what we would have done had they fulfilled our request.  

In aerial photos of Portland from the late 1930s to the early 1970s you can see the operation along the riverbank, just south of the Ross Island Bridge. In some of these photos there are half a dozen vessels being dismantled at one time. It was an awesome, post World War II industrial atmosphere. I can recall the smell of bunker oil, the sound of heavy steel sheets crashing, and the shafts of light streaming down from the high clerestory windows of this sheet metal cathedral. I knew at the time that I was experiencing a fascinating chapter in the transitory history of the Portland waterfront, but what I didn't know was that this very place was the source of one of Portland's great mysteries.

This same piece of real estate plays an important role in Portland's underground history—the history of shanghaiing, and the too well-known "shanghai tunnels," a feature that has come to symbolize Portland as much as Voo Doo Donuts. To trace the history of this mysterious dock we need to step back in time to 2001 and then work our way backwards in our quest for the true story. 

In 2001 Jewel Lansing, one of Portland's foremost historians, summarized the shanghaiing legend in a brief scenario that ended:
[A]t a certain point in the evening Captain Jack would slip some knockout drops into their drinks, causing them to pass out. Then he would take them down through the basement, where there was a tunnel that led ... eventually to Shanghai Dock.

Please note, this is not Lansing's view, it is her summation of the urban legend. By 2001 the shanghaiing stories, long told in this city, had picked up a mysterious location, the nefarious Shanghai Dock. But where exactly was this dock? The answer to this question can be found laid out in black and white in a February 26, 1978 Sunday Oregonian article featuring Portland's chief archeologist of Chinatown basements, Mike Jones. (Jones, I am told, has gone on to make a career for himself giving tours of these basements to tourists.) In this article titled: Portland's Underground: Route of the Shanghai Express, Jones offers up this fascinating tidbit of information:
Jones surmises that the tunnels were built in the 1850s by Chinese laborers who had originally come to the area to help build the railroads. He says he's talked with a Portland woman whose father picked up lumber from a spot near the Ross Island Bridge called "Shanghai Dock" and delivered it by mule team to S.W. 1st Avenue and Yamhill Street, taking it underground. The woman says her father recalled that Chinese laborers were at the construction site.

I will constrain my comments and move further back in time to an Oregonian article of November 22, 1976 where we find Mr. Jones again digging in the basements of Chinatown.  In this article he is seen clutching a rumpled map that he had obtained from a recently deceased "old timer" by the name of George Montana. It is an actual map of the infamous "shanghai tunnels." (Since this post is dedicated to "Shanghai Dock" I will try to again constrain my comments. I have written a rather long article on the subject of the "tunnels" and once I get it published I will wash my hands of this nonsense for good.)  This 1976 article, titled: Old Portland Tunnels Explored to Pen History of Shanghaiing, is worth reading in its entirety, if only to marvel at the unsubstantiated horsefeathers newspapers will print. What is pertinent to this post is this section of preposterous  statements put forth by Mr. Jones which I quote here, retaining the original context:
He found out from an elderly woman missionary that the tunnels were used to keep extremely sick, or disfigured people from public view.
Jones said shanghaiing was not confined to the Burnside area but occurred all along the waterfront, even as far south as the Ross Island Bridge, a place known then as "Shanghai Dock"
"But no one really knows for sure now," he said, "although there are still a few guys who remember being hauled half-drunk through the passage-ways."

Once again the mysterious Shanghai Dock down by the Ross Island Bridge is mentioned.  Using this 1976 article as a starting point and gazing back through time, only a couple of tiny wisps mentioning shanghai tunnels can be found—but nothing earlier than 1964, an article concerning a tunnel in the basement of a Port Townsend hardware store. Knowing this, I am utterly convinced that the "shanghai tunnel" legend is of late 20th century origin.
But, Shanghai Dock is Real! 

The existence of Shanghai Dock is real and can be proven to the satisfaction of the most incredulous skeptic. 

It all began on November 29, 1923 when the multi-national, American-owned, Shanghai Building Company opened an office at 283 Stark Street under the direction of Mr. C. J. Pape. This company's business in Portland was to ship lumber and other building supplies to China. The company leased the former Columbia Shipbuilding shipyard in southwest Portland that had stood vacant since the end of WWI.  This dock was renamed "Shanghai Building Company Dock," a name which was shortened to "Shanghai Dock" by longshoremen, and others who did business there.  

It was an ill-fated business from the start. After the Portland branch had been going for less than a year Mr. Pape was first fired, and then arrested for embezzling large amounts of company funds.  The company would have easily survived this event, but then in the fall of 1924 civil unrest in China brought an end to orders for lumber. The Portland branch of the Shanghai Building Company was closed, but the name of the dock just south of the Ross Island Bridge stuck fast as "Shanghai Dock." This is no surprise to me. I worked for years at a place just north of the Steel Bridge that is still called "Globe Dock,” even though it hasn't been owned by Globe Milling since the 1930s.

The later businesses operating out of Shanghai Dock, such as the Pacific Bridge Company, retained the name until Zidell-Steinburg took over the area as a "bone yard" (a maritime name for a junk yard where ship breaking took place) sometime in the mid 1930s. After that the name, "Shanghai Dock" disappeared from reality only to reappear in the booze-addled minds of denizens who recall stories told by "old timers." The fact that there was indeed a dock named Shanghai Dock added fuel to the fire of many insistent and belligerent tale spinners who would die rather than admit to being… uh, what is the word I am searching for? Na├»ve? Mistaken? Ill-informed? Certainly not "stupid."

Hearing of the existence of a rumpled map of the "Shanghai Tunnels" inspired me, and even though my mind is no longer booze-addled, I was able to produce such a map myself. Here it is made available to the public with my permission to use as the viewer sees fit.


  1. I love the legend on the map ... "to beguile the foolish and instruct the wise" ... not to mention the inclusion of Starbucks among other more authentically sounding 19th century place markers.

  2. The more I look at that map the funnier it gets.

  3. Coming to this a year late - I want this "Shanghai Tunnels Map" to be real so badly! Wendy Clark - wendylynnclark.com