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Historians Explore Salem's Underground

Seattle and Portland aren’t the only Northwest cities with secrets under their surface. There’s an effort underway in Salem to find evidence of a long-lost Chinatown beneath the city’s downtown business district.  Chris Lehman went underground and brought back this report.

This isn’t quite like descending into a deep dark mine. Our tour starts in the basement of the tallest office building in Salem.

Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Rebecca Maitland points to evidence of underground passageways outside an office building in Salem.

Rebecca Maitland: “We go through a series of keys and codes to get downstairs.”

Rebecca Maitland works for the building’s owner. Recently a local historian named John Ritter approached her and asked if he could have a look around.

Ritter thought there might be some long-forgotten chambers and passageways branching off from the basement. Sure enough, Maitland and Ritter moved aside a creaky bookcase and found a doorway leading to a room that no one had set foot in for years.

In the ceiling they noticed a trap-door. It opened up to the sidewalk above. They figured it served as a place for local merchants to drop gold that would be stored in the vault of the bank that used to operate here.

Rebecca Maitland and historian John Ritter found a long-forgotten room behind this bookcase in the basement of a Salem office building.

Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network

Rebecca Maitland:  “I swear there’s still, if you get really close, gold speckles on the floor here.”

For Ritter, the historian, the find was interesting. But despite the traces of gold, he says this chamber isn’t the mother lode.

John Ritter: “I’m on a quest with Rebecca to find Salem’s opium dens.”

It isn’t that Ritter enjoys the smell of opium, which he says could still be lingering after more than 130 years.

He says the dens would be the only remaining tangible evidence of a once-thriving Chinatown. Ritter says Oregon’s capital once had a Chinatown but it largely disappeared due to bigotry against Chinese communities of the time.

Ritter says whether it’s opium dens or gold repositories, the underground history of Salem is a story he wants to tell.

John Ritter: “It would be exciting to see that and validate Salem’s underground history, to say yep, here’s where it happened, here’s what we’re finding.”

And he says it’s not just his own interests he has in mind.

John Ritter: “People are starved for this.”

A recent one-time only tour of some of Salem’s underground areas had room for 100 people. More than 300 showed up. Ritter says he’ll continue his subterranean explorations. And now he has a partner. Maitland has become so interested that she’s taken up the cause too.

John Ritter: “I kind of talk about Rebecca and myself as (an) Indiana Jones pair, except we don’t have a whip or a gun, but I do use a cane a lot.”

At least one of their discoveries isn’t something from long ago. The two recently stumbled upon a 1970’s era discotheque. But instead of platform shoes, the dance floor was covered with pigeon feathers.

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