Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Mysterious Underground of Pendleton Oregon

Like an epic novel, the intriguing "city beneath a city" of Pendleton, Oregon, is rich with characters and settings as diverse as underground opium dens and ice cream parlors. The entertaining and knowledgeable guides take you on a ninety minute journey through several decades of discrimination, crookery, prostitution and gambling. Our tour begins in what was once the red light district of Pendleton, about a three and one half hour drive east of Portland.

Standing on the corner of SW 1st Street and Emigrant Avenue, we view the faded sign advertising the Shamrock Card Room and Hop Sing's Laundry before we descend downstairs to the basement saloon.

Pendleton was a big cowboy town in the late 1800's and is reported to have up to 18 brothels and 32 saloons to entertain the traveling cowboys and people moving west on the Oregon Trail. There are mannequins around the bar and card tables that add to the western flavor of the room.

Next to the saloon is Hop Sing's Laundry. Several
of the small rooms are furnished with period furniture and tools where Hop Sing would wash the dirty and dusty trail clothes of his customers. There was no plumbing in those days so Hop Sing would carry the water from a well in one of the basements and heat it for washing. Hop Sing capitalized on his hot water and dirty customers by offering hot baths while they waited for their clothes. However, one problem Hop Sing encountered was disposing of the bath water. He had to take several buckets up stairs to the alley to get rid of the water. Since this took time away from his business, he offered baths on a sliding scale. The first bath was ten cents to use the fresh water, the second bather saved a penny to use the same water and so on throughout the day, that way he would only have to empty the dirty once or twice a day. This saved Hop Sing time, energy, and water, as he would only add hot water to the dirty water throughout the day. I like a bargain but would hesitate taking the last bath for the 1 cent sale.

Once a year the laundry, saloon and other areas come to life when the mannequins are replaced with local actors and period costumes. The actors relive life in the basement rooms where we see an ice cream parlor, meat market and speakeasy, which were used at various times throughout the early twentieth century. In some of the rooms, we see natural light from above which comes from glass prisms built into the sidewalks. The sun turns the glass a purplish color and it looks like some type of grate. I'm sure I have walked over this type of lighting system in other cities and never noticed.

We emerge from what is called the underground, which it technically is, but most people would call them basements. We are led around the corner, still downtown, to see the glass prisms from the surface. Then it's on to the Cozy Rooms of Miss Stella. We walk up 31 steps to a chapel, which seems a bit out of place in this establishment, but reportedly shows how Miss Stella took care of her girls. We tour waiting rooms, living areas, working rooms and a secret closet used as an escape route for prominent people during police raids. Miss Stella's Cozy Rooms lasted into the 1950's.

After hearing a number of colorful stories about Miss Stella we go down a rear fire escape and back underground to basements with dirt floors that served as living areas and opium dens for many of the Chinese workers who came from China in the mid 1800's. They came from China to find their riches and to work in gold mines or on the railroad. They began businesses such as laundries and eateries. Most who came were men and while they were free men, they encountered the same types of discrimination and working conditions that the slaves, Native Americans and other non-white people suffered. The Chinese didn't find their fortune. Instead they found cheap places to live and work in the basements of businesses and hotels.

The connecting "tunnels" look like hallways that were built to transport goods between businesses, or to receive deliveries. The areas that are lit by the sidewalk glass were access passageways known, in architectural terms, as "sidewalk vaults". In most cities, these passageways have no connection to the early Chinese and are not tunnels. In The Forbidden City within Victoria, David Chuenyan Lai debunks many of the myths around these Chinese tunnels.

The non-profit corporation that conducts the tours has done a great job of creating an entertaining tour with great anecdotes of times past. While the historical accuracy of the tours may be questionable, the tour is worth the price of admission and provides a good starting point to research what is true and what may have been stretched to make a good story.

Like any good story I came away with knowing new characters of the wild west and learning some interesting facts of a time long ago that still lives in legend and myth.

The tours conducted by reservation cost $15 for adults and $10 for children. The number to call is 1-800-226-6398 weekdays.