The Secret Passages of Pendleton, Oregon

Photo © Pendleton Underground Tour

by Heather Larson

I went underground a while back. Not in a covert way, but to explore what happened below the sidewalks of downtown Pendleton in years past. Stories of yesteryear come to life when you see the furnished rooms and hear what happened there from guides like Karol Armstrong on the Pendleton Underground Tour. She filled our heads with both tall tales and actual happenings. We decided which ones were true.

This city, now known for the largest rodeo in the country, the four-day Roundup in September, had quite a bawdy past. In 1908, long before Prohibition, 32 card rooms and 18 brothels called Pendleton home. It was the place to party in Eastern Oregon. The standard building arrangement was a saloon on the street level, a card room or speakeasy in the basement and a bordello on the second floor.

Armstrong said that Chinese workers built the underground tunnels because it was unsafe for them to be above ground at night. They connected the tunnels so they could move about all through the downtown area without going outside. Some even had their businesses below street level.

At Hop Sing’s Laundry and Living Quarters, cowboys got their clothes washed and ironed while they took baths. When they were clean and spiffed up, they visited the working women. Because Hop Sing didn’t have spray bottles, he kept water in his mouth and dampened the clothes he was ironing by spitting on them. That’s what Armstrong said, anyway.
To visitors, what happened beneath the streets seems mysterious and unique, but to the bootleggers, card dealers, Chinese and the men who paid for their services, the underground became a necessity. Although the bordellos were located above ground, they did have secret entrances and exits so the men frequenting them couldn’t be seen.

We knew we’d arrived at the Cozy Rooms because the red light above the door lit up. Inside we saw the well-appointed chapel that served as a church for the girls on Sunday and for those customers who couldn’t find seating in the parlor the rest of the week. The tour showcases how well the working girls were treated. Unfortunately, when the brothels closed in 1953, the underground activity also tapered down.

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