Portland, Oregon is a weird city, and most of the people living here will tell you that. Hell, the most popular bumper sticker is one that literally says ‘Keep Portland Weird’. I recently found out though, that the city may be a little too weird for my liking.
There are a set of tunnels which run beneath the streets of Portland known as the Shanghai tunnels. These tunnels were once used by bootleggers in the prohibition era to secretly transport alcohol to illegal bars known as Speakeasy’s. That was a dark, and probably boring time in an unusually sober portion of American history, but the origin of the tunnels is even darker.
They were originally created in the early 1800’s, so that merchants and sailors could offload their goods without disrupting city commerce. However, there was another much more sinister usage.
It’s still debated by historians now, but supposedly it was also used to transport Chinese immigrants into an indentured servitude within the city. That’s where the name ‘Shanghai Tunnels’ originated, and also where the term ‘Shanghaied’ – as in to recruit or abduct via unscrupulous methods originally came from.
Of course, throughout the years these tunnels have garnered a bit of urban legend status. I’ve heard people say they’ve gone in there, and were chased out by some malevolent specter within. Others have said that there is some mutant cryptid that dwells there, apparently looking like a mix between a crocodile and a giant mole or something.
I never believed these claims. Most of the tunnels have since fallen into disrepair, or flooded out from the Willamette river which runs alongside them. There are some tours that you can schedule to see portions of it, but they are very limited. Most of them are now off limits, but that hasn’t stopped some people.
Some people in this case, was me and two of my good friends who thought it would be a good idea to go down there. I know this guy named Hector. He’s a vagrant, uses a lot of drugs and lives homeless in downtown Portland.
I first met Hector years ago when I was at a job site down there. He looked pretty miserable in the rain, so I thought the least I could do was give him ten bucks. He was incredibly thankful for my donation, and he’s remembered me ever since.
I’ve slipped him some cash off and on for years now, and last week I was down there for work again. I saw Hector there, gave him a few bucks and he and I got to talking. He’s an eccentric fellow, a few screws lose for sure, but he has a lot of stories to tell.
Most of them involve some kind of conspiracy, like the lizard people that he says run the government from secret bases underneath Antarctica. I like Hector, but I never really bought into any of his stories as more than fiction. That day though, I ended up mentioning the Shanghai tunnels. Hector seemed to go stiff as I uttered the name.
“I don’t go near that place, man.” I could see the nervousness in his wide-eyed stare as he said it.
“Why? They’re all closed down now, aren’t they?” I asked. Hector took a quick glance down the block and shook his head.
“No… not all of them.” His behavior really caught me off guard, as I’d never seen him act so reserved or look so nervous. If anything, it was usually hard to get him to stop talking.
“What do you mean? What’s down there?” Hector took another look around and ran a hand through his dreadlocks as he sighed.
“You didn’t hear this from me alright?” I nodded, and Hector took a deep breath.
“I know a guy who got in. There’s a spot on the eastern end where you can still access them. Not many people know about it, but the streets know all the secrets. I don’t know what that dude saw down there, but it scared him senseless. I saw him afterward, and he was a wreck. He’s always been a bit strange but… after he went down there, he was never the same.” I eyed Hector skeptically, but I got no sense of him lying.
“Dude was found about a week later in a dumpster. He had a gunshot wound to his head. They say he did it himself but…” Hector scoffed and shook his head again, as if he didn’t believe that explanation.
I apologized for the loss of his friend, and tried asking more about it, but Hector wouldn’t answer. It may have been a bit insensitive of me, but my curiosity had suddenly been peaked. Hector didn’t say much more about his late friend, or what he suspected was responsible, but he did tell me how to get in.
I bid Hector farewell soon after, and felt the tunnels linger on my mind for the rest of the day. Like I said, I had never bought in to the superstitions about them, but Hector’s story and demeanor as he told it, had me incredibly curious.
A couple days later me and my two friends got together for some drinks. We started talking and getting sloshed, and eventually the topic of the tunnels arose. I told them that someone told me about a secret entrance to get inside. They weren’t buying it, so I – in my slightly inebriated and overconfident state, suggested we go see for ourselves.
My two friends; Chris and Devon are very much the adventurous type. They’ve been on urban exploration trips in abandoned locales many times before, and are generally the types that are up for just about anything. As soon as I had spoken my challenge to them, they jumped all over it.
Next thing I know we were on our way down to the location. It was late at night, and we had packed all the gear we thought we would need. Devon drove as I sat in the front passenger seat and gave him directions.
Half an hour later and we pulled into this rundown lot in eastern Portland. The place looked abandoned, some old warehouse that had sat unused for quite a while. It’s architecture looked quite old, and that was a good sign for us.
The tunnels connect to dozens of old buildings in the area. Many older hotels, markets and even some homes have entrances in the basements to gain access to the tunnels. Like I said earlier, most have been sealed up by this point, but apparently not all of them.
I felt a cold chill creep down my spine as Chris and Devon strapped on their equipment. I knew being there was a bad idea, even without seeing the foreboding building and plethora of trespassing signs. Yet despite that, I was determined to see the elusive tunnels for myself.
We hopped the fence, and made our way through the lot and towards the chained-up door. Luckily it was mostly for optics, and we were able to slide right between it and the rusted metal door. Once inside I felt a blanket of dust fall around us. Chris shined his flashlight around, illuminating several empty corridors. Old crates and piles of garbage filled the floors, and the walls were decorated with all manner of graffiti.
The two of them didn’t so much as hesitate, and quickly moved through the forsaken building to try and find the entrance. I did my best to recall Hector’s instructions, and within a couple minutes we found the stairs that led to the basement. Chris went first, with Devon following behind and me bringing up the rear.
The basement was in an even more abysmal condition then the ground floor. It was mostly clear of trash, but the walls were all but completely covered in all sorts of strange graffiti. Most of it was the usual gang signs and praises of Satan and whatnot, but there was one image that seemed to stand out. It looked like a butterfly, painted black with splotches of blue within it. It must’ve been scrawled on at least a dozen different places.
After wandering around for a few minutes, Devon called out to us from the side. Chris and I turned, to see Devon’s flashlight illuminating a large hole in the wall. It looked like there had once been a door there, but someone had knocked it clear out of it’s frame leaving only a gaping concrete hole. Dozens of the same image of the butterfly were painted around the hole, varying in size from only a couple inches to several feet.
Devon approached the hole, and shined his flashlight throughout it. I crept up behind him and saw a dark, narrow corridor on the other side. The ground was wet, and somewhere in the distance I heard what sounded like running water. A cold chill swept down my spine as I eyed the long, desolate passage. Even in that moment it felt like a bad idea, but ego wouldn’t let me say it.
Devon stepped through the hole, as if completely unaffected by the foreboding scene. Chris followed a moment later, and I reluctantly did as well. Both Chris and Devon have extensive experience in exploration and spelunking, and I chose to trust them rather than my gut.
The three of us made our way into the tunnel, taking care to remain as silent as possible while observing all that we could. It felt like we were walking in a crypt, and straying deeper into some place that had not seen the light of day in decades.
The tunnel eventually branched, and two other passages sat opposing either side. One was partially caved in with rubble and wood splinters, while the other two remained mostly intact. We were about to venture down the left-hand passage, when Chris called out.
“Hey look at this…” I turned and saw Chris waving us toward the collapsed tunnel. He was knelt beside it, shining his flashlight onto the pile. Something shimmered within it.
Chris put his hand in as the two of us approached, and pulled up a small metallic chain with a heart-shaped locket. It was quite rusted, but there appeared to be a word engraved upon it.
“Desirae…” Chris read the name and looked back to us.
“Wonder where she went.” A small grin crept across his face, but neither of us responded. He got back to his feet, and the three of us pushed onward. A couple minutes later as we were walking down another separate concrete hallway, when Devon suddenly paused. He held up a hand, motioning us to freeze and be silent. We stayed put for several seconds, but I didn’t hear anything.
“What is it?” Chris finally asked in a whisper. Devon remained silent a couple more seconds then shook his head slowly.
“Nothing… I guess.” A saw a brief look of concern flash across his face, but I said nothing. By that point we had travelled pretty deep into the tunnels, and I was desperately wanting to turn back. I didn’t though, I refused to be the one to back out first, as I knew neither Chris or Devon would ever have let me live it down.
We pushed on, around another corner and into a wide-open chamber. A few rats scurried away as we entered, and the sounds of flowing water had grown louder. Around the room there were old garments of clothing scattered about. They were filthy and looked as though they had been there a very long time.
The three of us spread out in the room and began to inspect the area. I saw old jeans, a couple pairs of shoes and other random articles of clothing. The place smelled terrible too, like mildew and sewage. I was finally about to suggest we head back, when something on the wall caught my attention. Another drawing of a butterfly.
I felt my heart sort of recoil in my chest as I beheld the uncanny depiction. I can’t even fully explain why, but something about it was almost haunting to me. Maybe it was just the environment that did it, but I could’ve sworn I recognized that image from somewhere.
“I don’t think we should be here.” Devon suddenly spoke in a whisper. I turned back and saw him facing away from me a couple yards away. Chris looked back from the other side, and he and I exchanged a confused look. Chris then chuckled.
“Too spooky for ya, huh?” Chris asked. Devon didn’t reply, he just lifted a hand and pointed to something in front of him. My heart began to pump furiously, and I quickly walked over to Devon’s side. That’s when I saw it.
On the ground where Devon was pointing was a random assortment of what I initially thought were smooth, slender rocks. It took me only a second to recognize what they actually were. Bones, a large pile of bones. Chris saw it too, but he just scoffed.
“You guys are letting this place get to you. It’s just the remains of some animal.” Devon immediately shook his head, and picked up a piece of rebar from the ground. He then began to prod the pile, until one unique piece of bone fluttered out. There was no question anymore, as the small curved bone was unmistakably the lower jawbone of a human.
Chris didn’t have an answer for that. None of us did, and we just stood there in a stunned silence for a moment. I swear it became so quiet I could hear my blood pumping through my veins. I then realized how vast that pile of bones truly was, and knew it was way too large to belong only to a single person.
Suddenly there was a loud bang that reverberated through the cavern. It sounded like a metal door slamming hard against it’s frame. The sudden calamity caused me to jump, and the three of us stepped back to gaze down the tunnel where the noise had originated. In the distance I began to hear the ever so slight sound of footsteps, wet and flapping against wet squalid ground. They were coming towards us.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.” Chris suddenly spoke. We turned to do just that, but Devon continued to stare. The footsteps then suddenly halted, down the labyrinthian corridor ahead of us. A vague silhouette suddenly emerged in the shadows. I almost thought it was just my mind playing tricks on me, until it moved.
In a split second we lost all sense of rationale and composure, and the three of us panicked and lurched into a sprint. All our thoughts of exploration vanished immediately as our minds flooded with adrenaline and terror. I ran as fast and as frantic as I ever have in my life.
We rounded the corner to retrace our steps back out, using only our measly flashlights to guide our way. Chris and Devon were ahead of me, and suddenly I felt my foot fall on something unstable. I felt my ankle twist, and give out beneath me with a painful crack, before plummeting hard into the wet ground.
My phone fell from my hand, landing so hard that I heard it shatter on impact. Chris and Devon didn’t hesitate, and within seconds I watched their lights disappear down the corridor. I screamed out for them, but they must’ve not heard me. As my only source of light had broken, I found myself alone in the dark, but not as alone as I would’ve liked.
I tried hauling myself to my feet, hoping the adrenaline would be enough to overcome the searing pain in my mangled ankle, but it wasn’t. My jaw clamped down hard, and I fell back to the ground with a whimper. I was about to try again, driven by the terror I felt, when I heard a rock scamper across the ground somewhere behind me.
I froze, and felt my hands trembling beneath me. Footsteps echoed behind me, and I could do nothing in my injured state aside from try to remain hidden and pray. I knew it wouldn’t work, and whatever it was seemed to know exactly where I was, even in the pitch black.
It strolled right up behind me, stopping just a couple feet away. I learned the true meaning of ‘deer in headlights’ in that moment, as I found myself so absolutely petrified that I couldn’t even move.
“Please… I’m sorry. I’ll never come back I promise. Please just let me go.” My words echoed throughout the dark halls, but there was no response. I thought I was about to be murdered by some deranged sewer-dwelling lunatic, or torn apart by some otherworldly entity.
It took a few more steps toward me. Suddenly I felt something grab my shoulder. It was cold, so unbelievably cold that it almost felt like a hornet’s sting against my skin.
It gripped down tighter, causing an immense pressure against my skin. It may have just been my frantic mind trying to cope with the traumatic situation, but I could’ve sworn I felt something then. It was something more than a physical pain, deeper and more personal, like someone allowed me a glimpse into the depths of their soul. I can’t explain it.
“Get out, they’ll find you.” The voice that had spoken sounded like that of a young girl. Not threatening or malicious in any way. If anything, it sounded like a voice filled with despair. An all-encompassing sorrow that I suppose I can never fully comprehend. She then let go of my shoulder, taking the pain with her as the footsteps sauntered away back into the tunnel.
Once again, I was alone in the dark. It was all I could do to just sit there and contemplate what I had just witnessed. After a few minutes I think the shock began to ware off, and I heard another noise down the tunnel. This time it came from the opposite direction, accompanied by a light.
“Zach? Zach holy shit man you alright?” It was Devon, but I didn’t know how to even respond. He knelt down to help me to my feet. I felt my ankle creak as I moved, and a nerve shot an immense pain through my leg. I would’ve fallen back down if he hadn’t had been holding me up.
We turned to leave that place, when I saw his light flash off something on the ground behind us.
“Wait… what is that?” I asked. Devon turned back, and the two of us stared down at the silver ring laying on the ground. It was worn pretty heavily, and beside it, I noticed two bare footprints in the muck. Devon wanted to leave, but I demanded he let me grab the ring first.
Devon hauled me back outside, and we found Chris waiting for us on the middle floor. The two of them guided me back to the Jeep, and we got out of there. None of us really said much as we drove out of there.
I went to the hospital soon after, and found that I had broken my ankle. As I spent time recovering from the incident, I found myself unable to move past it. The words she had spoken just echoed endlessly in my mind.
After all the rumors of monsters and demons that haunted the tunnels, could it have really been true? Was that really what had touched me that night? I can’t explain it, but I felt like her words weren’t just a threat. They sounded more like a desperate warning.
Devon came over a few nights later, and I told him what I had seen. He was obviously a skeptical at first, but after my continued insistence and swearing on my life he finally came around.
He admitted to me then that he had also found something disturbing. He said he was browsing 4chan, when he stumbled upon a thread that caught his eye. He said a few users were talking about this sex trafficking organization that operated all around the United States. He said it quickly delved deep into conspiracies, talking about all sorts of prominent people that were supposedly involved with loose connections. There was one thing that stood out though, the butterfly.
Apparently anon believed this butterfly symbol was like their specific symbol. Devon said the images they posted looked almost identical to the ones we had seen painted on the tunnels. I didn’t want to believe it was connected, but I couldn’t deny the possibility.
I wanted to call the cops, but Devon refused, saying they’d never believe our story. He had a point, but if what we suspected was going on was true, then we had to do something. Unfortunately, my broken ankle made me practically useless, and regardless, there was just no way in hell I was going back down into those tunnels. Devon ended up leaving that night without us deciding on what to do.
I tried calling Devon the next day, but he didn’t answer. I figured he just was just busy with other things, but a few days later he finally got back to me. Devon texted me during the day, saying he desperately needed to see me.
He was almost frantic when he arrived, and looked like he hadn’t slept at all since the night we went down there. He kept saying that he had to do something, seeming almost remorseful for his actions. He then did something I had never seen him do, he started to cry.
“I couldn’t just leave it alone man. Cops never would’ve believed us about all this. I had to do something.” I put my hand on his back and tried calming him down, but it didn’t seem to do much.
“Devon… what’d you do?” He shuttered, and then took a deep breath as he wiped the tears.
“I went back.” My eyes turned to reflect his mutual horror.
“I had to man. I had to find her… to see…” He broke down again shaking his head back and forth.
“I found her… she’s gone.” Devon broke again, and I actually hugged him as I tried reassuring that it wasn’t his fault. None of it was, and yet that didn’t stop the anguish from pouring into my gut.
Devon also mentioned he had lit a large fire on the premises of the entry point as he left. He figured that would be enough to lure the cops there, and he was right. Eventually they took a team down into the tunnels, and they discovered what we had feared the most.
Multiple bodies were recovered from the tunnels, most of them young girls but there were also a few men in the midst. They had been down there a long time, with most of the corpses having long since become skeletal. Whoever it was that was responsible for their deaths was long gone.
That would’ve been heartbreaking enough on its own, but then it got worse. They found one corpse that was much newer than the others. Another young girl of sixteen, and although partially decomposed, they were able to identify her. She had been there about a month, and the autopsy confirmed all the most horrible things that I dreaded to hear. Things so terrible that I won’t even justify them by putting them in words.
Her name was Desirae.
I looked up her full name online, and after doing some digging, I found her still-active Facebook profile. Her friends and family had plastered her wall with well wishes and grief at her fate. She also had a video on there, where her and some friends were on a trampoline messing around. My heart sank like a lead weight as I heard her speak. It was a voice I will never forget. The same voice of the girl that had spoken to me that night in the tunnels.
But that was impossible, as she had already been dead for weeks by the time we went down there. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know what I heard, and now I will never forget.
Police investigation is still ongoing, but considering recent events of incompetence that have led to the apparent suicide of high-profile sex-trafficking operators, I wouldn’t hold your breath. No doubt these people will just lay low for a while and then eventually spread their malice elsewhere. Portland is infamous for sex trafficking, and it seems this group may have been or still are at the epicenter. It’s hard to say whether they’ll ever be found, and whether Desirae will ever have any form of justice.
This revelation hit me pretty hard, but not as hard as it hit Devon. I haven’t seen or heard from him since that night he told me about all this. Last thing he said to me before he left, was something along the lines of how ‘something needs to be done’. I don’t know where he is now.
I really wish I could give some kind of closure to all this, like there’s some silver lining or justice for Desirae and all the others, but I guess things just doesn’t always work that way. For now, I can only hope that no one else ever has to suffer something as terrible as Desirae did.
We set out on our little expedition into the tunnels, having heard stories of demons and monsters. We found out those stories are true, but not in the way we expected. I know it sounds cliché, but it is people that are the real demons, and it always has been. Beware the butterfly men, and stay far away from the Portland tunnels.