Portland’s early waterfront has become a magnet for legendary stories of an illicit past. Some of those stories are even true.
“Shanghaiing” — often known today as crimping — really did happen, says Joe Streckert, author of “Storied & Scandalous Portland, Oregon: A History of Gambling, Vice, Wits, and Wagers” and host of the “Weird History Podcast.”
But the most romantic or entertaining tales of the practice are largely rooted in myth and exaggeration.
Take the tall tales surrounding the city’s so-called “Shanghai tunnels,” which, legend holds, run beneath Old Town Portland to waterfront docks.
Contemporary tour companies sell guided walks through dusty basements of some Old Town bars and tell ghost stories and myths of a time when these spaces were allegedly used to kidnap unwitting men and press them into service aboard seagoing ship.
Another story, recounted in an Oregon Experience video, draws from the 1930s Oregonian columns of former logger and writer Stewart Holbrook.
Holbrook claimed that a group of heavy drinkers made their way into these tunnels in a quest to siphon alcohol from beneath a saloon. Instead, Holbrook wrote, the men quaffed their thirst from a barrel of embalming fluid. They were then sold into service aboard a ship whose captain did not realize that most, if not all, were dead instead of drunk.
Holbrook’s story names a mortuary, a ship, and claims multiple men died. But researchers have found no evidence of the Johnson & Sons funeral home, no proof that a ship named Flying Prince ever visited Portland, and no news of multiple deceased men.
“I don’t care how much of a wino you are, I don’t think you’re going to think formaldehyde is a thing to drink,” Barney Blalock, whose books include “Portland’s Lost Waterfront” and “The Oregon Shanghaiers,” told “Oregon Experience.”
All the evidence suggests that these are stories rooted more in the imagination, not facts.
“Holbrook is a source for a lot of the tall tales we have about Portland’s waterfront,” Streckert said. “I think Holbrook thought of himself as a tale spinner, rather than a journalist. … It’s hard to read his stories and think this actually happened.”
While Holbrook’s yarns and stories about underground tunnels may not be true, there is a dark side of history that does underpin these myths.
“Crimping, the real name for shanghaiing, was very real,” Streckert said.
“Most shanghaiing was less about stealing dead guys, it was more of a hustle. Often times it was overcharging people at hotels, inns or boarding houses,” he said. “Folks would go into debt and were then pressed into service on ships to pay it off.”
In an era when workers’ rights were limited, these conscripted sailors sometimes found themselves unable to escape from lives at sea.
In one historical incident, four men who had signed on to the ship Arago disembarked in Astoria, Oregon, and tried to quit. Instead of allowing them to walk free, the captain clapped them in irons, as a recent Tillamook Headlight Herald story recounted. Their quest for freedom went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — where they lost.
“There were a lot of workers who did not have what we would call modern-day worker protections,” Streckert said.
Not until the passage of the Seamen’s Act of 1915 were sailors crimped into service free to depart.
Two decades later, Holbrook was ready to apply his prankster’s spirit and love of tall tales to embellish those memories of the past. And the myths live on.