Oregon -- Underground Tours Reveal Pendleton's Bawdy Past

Seattle isn't the only Northwest town where you can prowl the underground. The town of Pendleton in northeast Oregon has a wealth of bawdy history lurking beneath its downtown streets, and visitors can glimpse it in guided underground tours.

At the turn of the century, Pendleton claimed to be the entertainment capital of the Northwest. For a population of 3,000, it had 32 saloons and 18 bordellos.

Travelers can be part of that bawdy heritage in a 90-minute tour that begins in abandoned downtown basements and ends in the Cozy Rooms, a one-time bordello two floors above an underground Chinese jail. Visitors explore an underground area of about one square city block.

Tours are offered daily, and twice a year there's a special event, "The Underground Comes Alive," - a tour and living-history display that brings gamblers, cowboys, miners, sporting girls, a madame and an officer of the law back to life.

"The Underground Comes Alive" starts in The Shamrock Room, where many a bartender made an extra week's wages each night by wiping up spilled gold dust. There's honky-tonk piano, maybe a fiddle squawking out "Oh, Susannah," and a couple of dance-hall girls doing a can-can in red satin dresses and black boas.

More legitimate businesses recreated in this living-history show include a meat market and an ice cream works.

"The Underground Comes Alive" is the latest addition to Pendleton Underground Tours which were started three years ago by Pam Severe. As a child growing up in Pendleton, Severe heard stories about a secret underground city. The rumors turned out to be true.

A hundred years ago, Chinese laborers laid the stone basement walls for Pendleton's downtown commercial buildings. They didn't initially realize they also were building their own underground living quarters.

Most worked above ground, but laundryman Hop Sing - it's his real name, long predating Hop Sing on TV's Bonanza series - lived 39 years in Pendleton and reportedly only went above once, in 1907.

Hop Sing's laundry and bathhouse are furnished as they were. He laundered a cowboy's one-and-only set of clothes while the owner had a bath. Ten cents if he was the first bather, less if he came later and reused the water.

The Chinese drowned their bachelor sorrows in opium. And they loved to gamble. But they didn't drink. Cowboys did, and that was their downfall when it came to gambling with the Chinese. A drunken cowboy would lose, get mad and give chase. But he'd get smacked by the "Chinese Running Door," a trick-hinged hatch into the underground that baffled even the sober.

Lots of local folks have come on the underground tour, Severe says. "Whenever it's someone over 80, we really pick their minds."

Pendleton's senior citizens have shed the most light on the Cozy Rooms. The Main Street front door was plastered over in 1953, when the Presbyterian minister told the mayor he planned to use his pulpit the next Sunday to read a complete list of the girls and their customers.

The mayor knuckled under and most of the girls hit the road within 24 hours. The Cozy Rooms' madame, Stella Darby, turned out the red light - and moved discreetly around the corner.

On "The Underground Comes Alive" tour, Stella, a classy clothes horse, lives again.

So does Klondike Kate. When a guide knocks on Room 16 she calls out, "Just a minute." There's lots of rustling. Finally she peeks through an open window and smiles.

"Don't I know you?" she says, pointing to a man on tour. When he flushes, she winks.

Visitors who want to prolong the historic illusion can book a room in Pam Severe's new Working Girls Western Hotel. It's around the corner from the Cozy Rooms, a couple of doors from the Pendleton Underground Tours office.

The five rooms are spacious and light, with 18-foot ceilings with wide-bladed fans. They're furnished with antiques.


-- The regular Pendleton underground tour is offered daily, approximately every hour. "The Underground Comes Alive," the living-history show, is offered twice a year, in March and October (the next one is on Oct. 10).

Make reservations well in advance for "The Underground Comes Alive." Reservations also are suggested for the daily tours.

Tour rates are $10 per person for the daily 90-minute tour of both the underground and the Cozy Rooms. It costs $5 for a 45-minute tour of just the underground or just the Cozy Rooms.

"The Underground Comes Alive" costs $20: the two-hour-long tour includes living history, musical entertainment and refreshments.

-- For more information and reservations contact Pendleton Underground Tours Inc., 37 S.W. Emigrant St., Pendleton, Oregon 97801. Phone 1-503-276-0730.

-- At the Working Girls Western Hotel, rates are $55-75 double occupancy, including light breakfast. No children under 12. Phone the tour office at 1-503-276-0730 for reservations.

Sally-Jo Bowman is a freelance writer from Springfield, Oregon.