An Oregon Ghost Story
We’d timed our visit to Pendleton to coincide with the Roundup, and had managed to snag one of the very last hotel rooms in town. My husband was a big rodeo fan and was as excited as a little kid to be attending the famous Pendleton Roundup. I myself was looking forward to the rodeo, and very much enjoyed the Wild West feel of the town, but my biggest wish for this trip was to visit the famous – or should I say infamous!?! – Pendleton Underground.
According to the literature I’d read prior to the visit, Pendleton was a small village first settled in the 1860s or thereabouts by a fellow named Goodwin who built a station and a toll bridge. It was mostly a farming community in the beginning, and didn’t begin to boom until they found gold in the Blue Mountains. Then Pendleton became a stop for supply wagons, as well as an entertainment capital where miners could spend their hard-won gold and where cowboys and ranchers could come to drink, gamble in the 32 saloons and visit one of the 18 bordellos. Chinese workers came in abundance to work in the mines or do business in town. They were not always welcome with the general populace, and so burrowed underground and began digging tunnels from business to business, cellar to cellar; living and working in the tunnels they had dug. It was estimated that Pendleton’s the labyrinth of underground tunnels, dug by the Chinese between 1870 and 1930, wound for more than 70 miles underneath the town.
Through the years, the Pendleton underground tunnels and rooms were used by Chinese workers, Prohibitionists, opium addicts, ice cream stores, butcher shops, speak easys, saloons, card parlors, and even a bowling alley! Rumors abounded about the Underground. One story in circulation claimed that a pair of train robbers who used the tunnels to store their ill-gotten goods had died in the dark passages under an old house during a gun-battle over the stolen gold. It’s said that the ghosts of the robbers still haunt the place, and you can sometimes hear them crying: “It’s my gold! Mine!”
I shivered in delight as I recounted the legend to my husband. Being more pragmatic than I, he just laughed at me. But he did agree to accompany me on the tour of the Pendleton Underground. In 1989, some of the tunnels were restored by enterprising business folks who rehabilitated them and created exhibits and mannequins to demonstrate the businesses that used to be located there. I picked up the phone at once and booked us on the very next tour. My husband laughed at me, because I began bouncing on my toes and dancing around the hotel room, as giddy as a child with excitement. I was worse than he was the first night of the Roundup!
After a quick lunch, we went to Tour Headquarters and gathered with a large group of people, old and young, couples and singles, all interested in the story of the mysterious tunnels beneath our feet. I commented softly to my husband that we were probably standing over a tunnel right now, and the tour guide heard me and confirmed that part of the underground was indeed under our feet!
We saw a short film, and then we were out on the sidewalk and walking around a corner. We stopped there and the tour guide shared a short story about cowboys who stood on that very spot and called up to the working girls in the rooms above our heads. Then we went down a staircase and were underground, in a cellar that once housed a saloon. Mannequins of cowboys lounged around and played cards, and our tour guide took a place behind the polished bar and discussed the role of the saloon in the days of the gold rush. My husband was absolutely fascinated. I was listening with half an ear as I poked around the room and looked at the exhibits, trying to imagine what it was like to drink and play cards underground, a poke of gold in my pocket and a gun at my side.
Then the tour moved on, and we entered a recreated Chinese laundry. And that’s when I was hit with the first wave of not-quite-nausea. I swayed as my eyes swam with strange, out-of-focus colors. My stomach flip-flopped strangely, my spine went rigid, and the skin on my shoulders and arms prickled with goose bumps. For a moment, I could hear sounds of water swishing and a man’s voice right by my ear said something in Chinese. I gasped and whirled, but no one was there.
As suddenly as it had come, the nausea faded and my head was clear again. The room swam back into focus, and I realized that the rest of the tour had already moved next door into the recreated ice cream shop. I followed hurriedly, and my husband frowned a little when he saw me and motioned for me to keep up. Spooked by my experience, I stayed by his side as the tour guide discussed the use of this space for ice-cream storage, and then took us through a doorway into a long underground room full of small cots & benches. It was lined with windows that looked out onto a tunnel-hallway, which was lit in the daytime by glassed-in openings in the sidewalk above. A demonstration of the famous Pendleton wool industry had been set up here, but I heard nothing except the buzzing in my head as broken bits of words and phrases swept over me. Then my stomach turned over as strange bits of color flashed first here and then there in the room. For a brief moment, I saw an almost-invisible Chinese man doing calculations on an abacus made of some kind of black wood. The hands – the only clear part of the man – were rapidly moving red beads back and forth on little wooden bars.
“Come on, Sally. Don’t lag behind,” my husband said impatiently, pulling at my hand. Instantly, my vision cleared and I was back in the present. I staggered a little as I followed my husband through the door and into the tunnel itself. It was well constructed of dark basalt stones, smoothed fairly flat on the outside and carefully mortared together. You could see through the large windows right back into the room where we had just been standing. I glanced toward the place where I had seen the hands holding the abacus, shuddered once, and resolutely kept my eyes forward as we navigated around a corner and into the next area.
We passed through a place where a thriving butcher’s shop had conducted
their business. I blinked cautiously as I looked around the room, but everything stayed in focus, for which I was grateful. It was fascinating to see the old posters advertising low prices for meat, the old-style cash register and the cold room where the meat was kept. I was feeling much more myself now, and had thrust away the odd occurrences to think about when we were above-ground.
Then I stepped into the next room, an old card-room that had been used as a bar during Prohibition, and heard an alarm bell jangling desperately from somewhere overhead. In front of me was the recreated scene of a card party with rough-looking fellows sitting around a table, eyeing each other suspiciously. Above the mannequins, a little bell was still vibrating a little, as if the string the activated it had just been pulled. No one else seemed to notice the vibrating bell, or the sound of feet thudding rapidly for an exit that filled my ears.
By now, I was so tense with superstitious dread that I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. My husband noticed my distress and whispered: “Are you all right?” I nodded slightly, unable to speak, and gratefully followed the rest of the tour down another tunnel and into a brighter room once used as a bowling alley. Then we were back on the street in the fresh air, and I was panting with combined fear and exhaustion. What was happening to me? Was I losing my mind?
My husband was truly concerned by this time. “You look ill, honey,” he said. “Do you want to go back to the hotel? We can take the rest of the tour another day.”
“I’m fine,” I snapped a little sharply. How could I explain to my pragmatic husband that I was seeing things in the tunnels? He’d put it down to tiredness or say I was coming down with something. And maybe he’d be right.
The tour was heading down the street now, toward the old bordello which was the next stop, and I determinedly followed. My husband shrugged and came with me, taking hold of my hand and eyeing me sideways once in a while to make sure I was all right.
We climbed the “steps to heaven” and toured the rooms of the old bordello without any distressing color flashes or visions on my part, though I thought my husband’s eyes would pop out when he saw some of the decorations on the walls. Then we were at street level again, watching our guide open the locked door leading to our last stop on the Underground tour. I started to shake slightly at the thought of going back underground. We were going to see a Chinese jail just below our feet. Apparently the Chinese did their own policing in the early days. I drew in a deep breath and followed my husband downstairs into a musty room filled with bunk beds and tables and a cooking stove. There were Buddahs on the top shelf by the stove, and Chinese hats.
A gong hung next to me, and as I looked at it, the not-quite-nausea swept over me and the tour guides voice faded away. I stared at the gong in a cowardly manner, listening to Chinese being spoken by several male voices, conversing leisurely with one another. I heard someone laugh – a merry sound – and finally looked around at a merry faced man cooking something over a stove that looked – and did not look – like the one in the recreation. Behind him, a group of men sat around a table playing mah-jongg, and another man was lighting incense before a little altar in the corner. It was all so clear that for a moment I thought I could walk right up to the table and join the game. Then my husband’s voice cut through the scene, urging me along, and we went into a small side-room once used as an opium den. I stared for a long moment at the old platform where the opium users once lay smoking their pipes, almost willing myself to see them. But all I saw was an old opium bed – nothing more. And then the tour was over, and we were back at tour headquarters, thanking our guide, buying a souvenir book, and heading out into the street.
As we walked back toward the car along the crowded street, I looked at one of the purple-glass windows in the sidewalk that helped light the tunnels below. In my mind, I saw a pair of hands busy with an abacus. I’d never been psychic before, but I was convinced in that moment that I had truly seen back into the past during my time in the tunnels below Pendleton. Glancing up at my pragmatic husband, I wasn’t sure what I should tell him – if anything. Would he believe me? I still was not sure I believe it myself, and it had happened to me! Maybe I’d tell him later!
“What’s next on the Roundup schedule?” I asked him, and watched his face light up. We headed away from the past and its ghosts, and into the future.