Pendleton Stories and Tips

Down to the Real Underground in Pendleton

· Historic buildings on the banks of the Umatilla Photo,

We took the Pendleton Underground Tour in 1989, during our first visit to Pendleton. At that time, I had no reason to doubt its veracity, and it was entertaining enough. We were led through a maze of basalt rock tunnels, through a card room, Chinese laundry, ice cream parlor, and meat market. One year later, the tour expanded to include a Chinese jail, Chinese opium den, and "cozy rooms", an upstairs bordello. Our tour ended in a gift shop, with an unimpressive assortment of souvenirs.

Been there, done that. On our third visit to Pendleton in 2006, a brochure for the tour shows a pigtailed Chinese man smoking an opium pipe, with smoke wafting behind a cowboy, face shaded by his hat, holding a full-house hand of poker, and next to him, a supposed "lady of the night". At $10 for 90 minutes, no doubt they deliver what they promise – the tour, not the whore, that is: "a lively look into Pendleton’s infamous and entertaining past". But we’d been there, done that. We were ready for something less, uh, touristy.

Giving credit to the Man, I gotta say that my husband Bob found the real Pendleton underground, one that is happening today, and may be more like the historical underground than anyone wants to admit. For while I was off walking up and down along the Umatilla River, Bob bumped into a young man who was living in a historic riverside building, and as he loves to do, began to talk with him. Somehow the conversation led to discussion of Pendleton’s underground, and Neal (the young man), offered to show Bob his little portion of it.

Life under the sidewalk: Bob was taken down into the basement, which extended out underneath the sidewalk. Neal had been quite busy refurbishing this space, partly lighted by sunlight coming in through a sidewalk grate. Though having more of a funky-chic unfinished look what with uncovered pipes and fixtures suspended along the ceiling, the subterranean dwelling had quite a bit of character. Chairs, dinette and frig made up a kitchen area, alongside living area with trundle bed, easy chair, shelving, wall hangings, and aquarium, with matching fish mural painted in one corner wall, even a small workshop!

And if it rains? was my first question to Neal, when I arrived on the scene. Ingeniously, he’d placed a planter underneath the grates. I later learned that these sidewalk vaults as they’re called architecturally, were more often covered with cast iron panels fitted with clear or purplish glass lenses, to allow passage of light, but not rain, flood, or cold. Patented by Thaddeus Hyatt in 1845, and used in cities from East to West coasts, they were intended to provide safe, inexpensive daylight to increase the usability of basements. When they broke or deteriorated, however, they were more often covered up with asphalt or concrete sidewalk.

Crabby’s is another real underground business: saloon, steakhouse and dancehall, with their Hole in the Wall Kitchen. We ate lunch there years ago in 1989, and enjoyed huge hot mama burgers this time for dinner. One-third-pounders are smothered with pepper jack cheese and jalapenos, guacamole on the side, along with a mountain of crinkly fries.

Spin and Win: Descending the steps to Crabby’s you enter through a heavy, beat-up wooden meat-locker type door, and find yourself in a big dimly lit cave, with rough rock walls. There are several pool tables, bar and dining area, and beyond that, the dance floor. Midweek early evening to take advantage of Happy Hour, it was quiet with only a few other customers. Happy Hour means the bartender spins the Spin and Win wheel for you, with a chance the pointer will stop on half-off or quarter-off drinks or pitchers. No such luck for us; we paid full price. But it was a huge pitcher.

Underground city? Pendleton Underground Tours website states that underground tunnels, dug by the Chinese between 1870 and 1930, cover over 70 miles underneath Pendleton's historic district, and included living quarters, opium dens, and even a jail. Lack of historical documentation is attributed to the premise that no one wanted to talk about it. Undeniably there was a Chinese community in Pendleton in the late 1800’s, and undeniably prejudice and discrimination against the Chinese ran high. However…

A more likely reality is presented by Patricia Wegars, PhD, from the University of Idaho. Dr. Wegars has extensively researched Chinese history in the West, and has uncovered no evidence of such. In cities where Chinese owned or occupied buildings, they often utilized basements, sometimes partitioning them into smaller rooms. They also may have feared to venture out after dark due to the real threat of violence against them.

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