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xmag.com : October 2003: Portland is Haunted


Every culture celebrates and remembers their dead. The Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), dating back to the time of the Aztecs, celebrates not only the memories of the dead but the continuity of life as well. Three of the six major festivals found in Chinese culture are reserved for the dead, and every tribe in Africa practices some form of ancestor worship. And this is only the tip of one large rotting iceberg.

After hearing stories about nearly every bar and strip club in Portland being haunted, I took to the streets to see for myself. So over the past few weeks I've been collecting stories and mingling with our dearly departed, composing a list of places to check out that just might raise a few hairs on your arms and send a tingle down your spine. This is just some of what I found.


The Portland Memorial Mausoleum

14th & SE Bybee in Sellwood

Described by Portland's own Chuck Palahniuk as a cross between Dracula's castle and Nordstrom's, this seven story twisting maze of Tiffany stained-glass windows and Carrara marble statues houses over 58,000 residents in a chilling City of the Dead. Just when you think you've seen all there is to see, you'll turn another corner to find even more winding vistas that go twisting on forever. A friend who worked at Oaks Park told me how he'd wipe down the rides each morning to remove the ash that drifted over from the crematorium's smokestacks. It's overwhelming walking into this place at first, but once you get comfortable, the setting becomes absolutely peaceful and romantic. A perfect spot to take a date and have some morbid sex, or to put the finishing touches on your latest poem or manuscript.


The Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery

20th and SE Morrison

This place boasts being the oldest gravesite in Portland. After having a haunted experience of my own stumbling home one night drunk at 2 a.m., I convinced a few friends to join me on a midnight foray. Although I didn't get a chance to see the apparition rumored to pace amongst a circle of trees or the writing that mysteriously appears on one of the crypt walls each night, I still had a great time running around in the dark, avoiding the cops in full-on ninja attire.


The Magic Gardens

217 NW 4th Avenue in Oldtown/Chinatown

From Viva and Drea playing Johnny Cash at closing time for Christian (R.I.P.) to the old bartender who'd set out a cup of coffee each morning for Curtis and the plaque that commemorates beloved customer Michael A.'s favorite seat, this is one strip-joint that knows how to keep memories of those who've crossed over alive. The one hundred year-old building used to double as a whorehouse back in Portland's heyday and is also rumored to have once been the main entrance into the Chinese Underground.

About 12 years ago, Everett, owner of Magic Gardens, employed a kindly old man named Curtis to work as janitor and cook. One morning when Everett arrived to pick Curtis up from his single room hotel in Oldtown, he found the poor man lying in bed, dressed for work and dead of a broken heart. Curtis had no friends or family outside Everett and the other Magic employees and he loved the place so much he simply refused to leave. Doormen would come up from the basement to ask the bartender, "Who's that old man sitting downstairs?" Even Everett's daughter and her friends talked of once having a conversation "with the old guy down in the basement." Naturally, the gentle gray-haired man wearing glasses fit Curtis's description. No one ever saw him coming or going. Even bartender babe Hallie reports feeling a breeze late one night after close, followed by what felt like a hand lightly touching her face. The last sighting was nearly three years ago, so perhaps Curtis has made peace and finally moved on to greener pastures. We can only wish him the best.


Union Jacks

938 E. Burnside

Formerly known as the Paris Tavern, this place doubled as an inn with several rooms upstairs and a jukebox located in the bar where patrons would pay ten cents per song to dance with one of the many lovely ladies. Sometime during the forties a fire broke out in one of the upstairs rooms and a young woman in blue died from smoke inhalation. The rooms haven't been used since the fire. People still talk of hearing footsteps upstairs late at night. Boards covering the windows, securely fastened with massive drywall nails, have been found torn off and thrown to the floor. A promotional photo of the building revealed a shimmering image of a woman in blue, standing in one of the windows gazing across the street at the sidewalk down below. Recently, another photograph was taken inside the club, and standing in front of the stage was a vague image of a woman in blue.

Next time you find yourself at Union Jacks, request a classy old song from one of the dancers, close your eyes and do a little toe-tapping, and make sure to give a loving smile to any women dressed in blue you see standing off alone in the corner.


The Paris Theater

Corner of 3rd and Burnside

I've heard conflicting stories about a woman who killed herself inside this hundred year-old building sometime between 1920 and 1940. One story says she was a homeless drug addict; another story speaks of a depressed burlesque dancer. Either way, she's dead but far from forgotten. It's hard to let go of the memory when Larry Paris talks of people being tapped on the shoulder late at night when nobody else is in the building. On top of all this is the super-spooky basement, with its numerous entrances into the tunnels beneath Portland, all filled with dirt and bricks and who knows what else. Larry talks of sudden cold spots throughout the establishment and occasional spine-chilling moments that raise the hairs on the back of your neck. What do you expect in a place that has housed live sex shows, an adult theater, a whorehouse and a burlesque cabaret club?


The Shanghai Tunnels

Also known as the Portland Underground, the tunnels connect the basements of downtown Portland from the river all the way west to NW 23rd. The intersecting passages of brick with stone archways were home to the illegal maritime practice known as shanghaiing--kidnapping able-bodied sailors, loggers, vagrants and other hard-working men and selling them off to sea captains who would force them to work aboard their ships in exchange for their lives. Women were also drugged and dragged out of restaurants and saloons at night and sold into sex slavery in exotic locales, never to be heard from again.

The most notorious of all the Shanghai thugs was hotelier Joseph "Bunco" Kelly, who bragged about being able to find an entire ship's crew in less than twelve hours. Kelly once ran across a group of men who had stumbled into the open cellar of a mortuary and, believing it to be the basement of a bar, drank embalming fluid. By the time Kelly found them many were dead or dying. Claiming the dead were merely dead drunk, Kelly sold all twenty-two bodies to a ship's captain who sailed far out to sea before realizing he'd been had. Another famous story tells of Kelly selling a dimestore Indian wrapped in heavy blankets. The angry captain threw it overboard where it was dredged up and recovered by two men nearly sixty years later.

From 1850 to 1941, Portland was known to sailors around the world as the Forbidden or Unheavenly City due to tales of this method of slavery. Hidden trapdoors known as dead falls were used to drop unsuspecting victims into the tunnels below. At the height of Portland's shanghaiing days it was estimated that at least 1,500 people were smuggled through the tunnels every year, never to be seen again.

The NW Paranormal Investigators are the official paranormal investigative team for the Portland Underground. Mike Jones and the Cascade Geographic Society occasionally run tours of the tunnels, although they are currently suspended until further notice. Check out http://northwestparanormal.freehomepage.com for more information.


I've come to the conclusion that if you want to see or feel real ghosts or have one of those chilling experiences that'll make your blood run cold, you need to go where some unspeakable act or atrocity occurred. The graveyards and mausoleums I've been to are much too peaceful to harbor any ill spirits. Catch a flight to Poland and wander around the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz or Treblinka this Halloween. Step across the border into Russia and follow in the steps of Hitler's wandering death squads or track down one of the mass graves where Stalin interred nearly 20 million. Go hunt down a scene where someone was brutally raped and murdered--Oregon City's not that far away. Check out the place on the Steel Bridge where two homeless addicts hung themselves five years back. Better yet--kill yourself and send a telegram back this way before chasing down the light at the end of the tunnel. Or just take a look in the mirror to see if you recognize the shattered image of your former self--the only ghosts I've ever known were the ones I created inside my own head.

Then again, after a few Jägermeisters and a round of ghost stories, any bar, strip club or graveyard can look like Night of the Living Dead.





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