Scott and Tami Plymouth Park

Pendleton Oregon – Shirts, Tunnels, and Boarding Houses

Pendleton Oregon is known for its Shirts Tunnels and Boarding Houses. I only knew about one of the three. The others were a big surprise.

While staying in southern Washington, we drove to Pendleton, Oregon just to have a look around. We didn’t expect to have to try to outrun the smoke this summer, so all of this was unplanned.  I have always wanted to visit Pendleton but didn’t know much about it. I have always wanted to visit La Grande, east of Pendleton, but this isn’t happening this year.

After a two day stay at Kennewick, we moved south to the Columbia River and are staying at Plymouth, Washington, at another Army Corps of Engineers camp, right on the Columbia River. We have nicknamed this camp as spider camp, due to the number of spiders and webs. They really are uncountable. The real name of the camp is Plymouth Park Campground — in Plymouth, Washington (spider camp).

Pendleton Mills

Pendleton, Oregon is home of the Pendleton Mills (lumberjack) shirts and at the edge of farmlands which extend far to the west. In the 1800s Pendleton was a well-known cowboy town. Pendleton is on the west side of the Blue Mountains on the Oregon Trail. Later ranchers, miners, and railroads comprised the culture. Pendleton is also known to have a very good Rodeo.   

After arriving we decided that maybe a tour was in order. We don’t usually take tours but this one was intriguing. So we signed up for the underground tour.  Thus we toured the tunnels under the city.  The only hint of the underground tunnel network is that many of the sidewalks have glass tiles, which allow daylight to enter the tunnels. Typically we don’t take tours because, the things they see are available for anyone to see, but in this case, the only way to see this “underground museum” is to take the tour.

Tunnels and Chinatown

The tunnels under the main buildings and streets in downtown Pendleton date back to the 1860s and include an entire underground Chinatown, with slave-like quarters and opium dens. The Chinese laborers, who helped build the west by building tracks for trains and digging mines, are credited for digging the tunnels.

The tunnels allowed the Chinese to move about the city without being at street level. The tunnels were not used by the white folks who occupied the above-ground city, until after the Chinese were moved out. The Chinese were forced out of Pendleton in the early 1900s after most of the hardest labor was already done. The tunnels were also used during prohibition in the 1920s to move booze from location to location. All of this was done way before the need for city planning or permits.

Part of the tour was into some of the historic buildings, including one of the old lodging locations. Downtown Pendleton currently — is all street level with typical shops, cafes, and bars.  Most of the buildings are two stories high – the second level unoccupied. Most every upper story, in the older buildings, are closed and not used anymore.

Unused Second Story

So in Pendleton on Main Street, you have street-level businesses, an un-used basement & tunnel system below the streets, and a completely unused second story. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 and after that, alcohol was available — without breaking the law. So the movement of alcohol to clandestine saloons was no longer important, so the tunnels were only used for storage.

It wasn’t always this way in Pendleton, both the second stories and the tunnels were used until the 1950s until one Saturday in 1957.  That day everything changed. Now the tunnels are used as a museum.

New Preacher

In 1957 a new preacher came to town and was hoping to make a change for the good, but he started to observe some misdeeds by some of the town’s most notable people. It started with drinking and socializing among the men in the bars, and after that, the men pursed more friendly encounters.

It was not well known at the time, but still known well enough, that the second story of the buildings downtown were not just boarding houses, but rather brothels.

So the preacher called a meeting with the most notable businessmen in town and announced that he was going to address the sinful situation and tell everyone in church the next day. He said that he was going to name – names and tell all the God-fearing women in town, where these fellows were spending their evenings and what they were doing.

Spider Camp
Spider Camp, Plymouth, Washington

The town leadership that very day, called an emergency town council, and that day converted and closed every boarding house. The friendly town was now attending church and suddenly there were no longer that many meetings in the evening to attend.

The residents of the brothels were shipped off to bigger cities like Portland on the next train. To make sure that nothing like this ever happened again the entrances were boarded up immediately.  Then each upper story entrance was sealed forever — usually with bricks over the doorways. Some of the stairways were removed. Many of the second levels are still empty and inaccessible today.

I find this to be a fine expression of the power of guilt motivation.

Columbia Gorge

We moved to the east end of the Columbia Gorge, and the air which had been good for three days, turned bad this morning as we were leaving Plymouth. We intend to move even further west, all the way to the coast if necessary.

Here is a link to the google map for Pendleton, Oregon.

Link to our 2018 Route.

Link to our route Jim Creek to Portland

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7 thoughts on “Pendleton Oregon – Shirts, Tunnels, and Boarding Houses”

  1. I did not know any of those things about Pendleton. His method seems to have been pretty effective. Thanks for the laugh.

  2. Dennis and Karen

    You not only get to view beautiful scenery, you get history lessons to boot! Keep writing, we enjoy hearing of your travels!

  3. I used to frequently stop in Pendleton and refuel at Woody Clark’s Truck Stop. How funny. That’s one way to clean up a town. Do I see signs of an early fall?

  4. It’s unfortunate that you have not been able to evade the smokiness in the area. It’s cool that you are at the Pendleton headquarters I have a couple flannels from there-very comfy.

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