Of course you’ve heard the stories of victims disappearing in the night: drunken and drugged tourists shipped through Portland’s vast network of turn-of-the-century Shanghai tunnels and sent as sailor slaves on boats to China, never to be seen again. Families wept; children starved.
Well, bunkum. The first recorded notion that Shanghaiing occurred in the tunnels was in 1972. And while I often favor interesting myth over dull reality, in this case it’s the myth that lacks imagination.
The seamy riverfront Portland of the late 1800s was a far more motley and interesting world than those old tales suggest. A version of Shanghaiing did exist—“crimping” is the word they used—but it didn’t happen in tunnels. It happened right out in the open.
Local amateur historian (and 33-year veteran of the Portland nautical grain trade) Barney Blalock devotes about a third of his new book, Portland’s Lost Waterfront: Tall Ships, Steam Mills and Sailors’ Boardinghouses (History Press, 192 pages, $19.99), to the whorehouses and sailors’ hotels of 19th-century Portland. In prose that sometimes seems heavily affected by the old-time newspapers he’s citing, Blalock describes boardinghouse gangsters like the mighty Jim Turk and former boxer “Mysterious” Billy Smith.
Crimps, often with the U.S. Marshals Service backing them, parted sailors from their money with promises of beautiful women and better contracts on different ships. The captains were held hostage to the boardinghouse masters; sometimes sailors were stolen and then sold back to the very same ship they’d left. In each case, a contract was signed, though often while blackout drunk. Less commonly, vagrants—illegal under Portland law, and so happily disposed of by local authorities—were shipped out.
One of the most salient takeaways from the book is that Old Town—then called Whitechapel—has resolutely maintained its character as a place of vagrant drunkenness for over 100 years, even as it lately shifts to a tequila-addled Gresham shore.
Blalock’s book covers a broad swath of Portland history, but it’s obvious where his interests lie. Beyond the boardinghouse and a conscientious telling of Astoria and Portland’s early rivalry as port towns, the rest of the riverfront history of bridges and ferries and the founding of Bull Run splinters into ADHD piecemeal, making it difficult for the reader to fully construct a coherent narrative.
But in its attention
to the early waterfront scow towns and wharf masters, Blalock’s book
remains a valuable and entertaining resource. Besides, it manages to
answer the age-old question of what you do with a drunken sailor: You
sell him to his own ship.
READ: Portland’s Lost Waterfront: Tall Ships, Steam Mills and Sailors’ Boardinghouses is available at bookstores.