Going Underground in Pendleton

She said…

Please forgive any blurry pictures in this post. I just got a new camera and am still learning!

In the late 1800’s the railroad came to Pendleton Oregon, and along with it all of the issues involved with importing a cheap labor force from another country. People were starving in China, and the offer of food, shelter, good jobs, and money in hand when they returned home to their families was an appealing proposition. Like our dealings with other cultures throughout history, the American and European industrialists who were investing in the railroads were more interested in financial gain than in the improvement of the lives of their workers.

Underneath the city of Pendleton Oregon there is a second city, a network of tunnels and rooms, ostensibly built by Chinese labor. The walls were made of basalt rock, mined locally, and the floors were packed dirt. Some of the rooms were illuminated by grates in the sidewalks above, but most were lit by smoky kerosene lamps. Initially used to quarter Chinese laborers, there are laundries, bath houses and opium dens. The Chinese were treated very badly, and most of them were never able to return to their homes and families as promised.

Basalt rock walls
Quarters for Chinese workers underground
Grates in sidewalk allowed light from above
Only light would have been kerosene lamps

After the railroads were complete, the tunnels were used for legitimate businesses, such as ice cream production and storage and a butcher shop (3 German brothers, one with a stockyard across the street, the second butchering the meat below ground, the third running the retail shop at street level) as well as for illegal activity, like saloons and speakeasies during the 1920’s. The girls who worked in the many brothels above ground used the underground network to get around town, where they would not be shunned by the respectable citizenry. The tunnels were also used as escape routes for men who were evading the law or trying to avoid the social stigma of being found in compromising activities.

Tin ceilings inside entrance. With bullet holes.
Speakeasy with secret entrances and exits. Not a glamourous as Hollywood would have us believe.

Our tour of the underground covered only one square block. It is known that the tunnels extend as far as houses on the (then) outskirts of town, but most of the properties are privately owned.

In addition to the underground section of our tour, we were treated to a visit to the Cozy Rooms, an establishment run by Madame Stella Darby until the mid-1960’s, even though all of the brothels in Pendleton were closed down in 1953. Stella was unique in that she taught her girls to read and write, and she even had a chapel in the “Rooms” for their religious edification. She had a philanthropic heart and donated much of her wealth to the less fortunate in Pendleton. It was posited that prostitution was tolerated for so long in Pendleton by the powers that be because it kept the constant cowboy rabble coming to town away from their daughters!

Stairway to Heaven
Madam Stella’s Quarters
Girl’s room, Living rooms and working rooms were always separate.

In 2014, a bronze statue of Stella was unveiled outside the former entrance to her Main Street bordello. The metallic Darby wears oriental lounge attire and high heels. Directly across the street stands a statue of Aura Goodwin Raley, the wife of one of Pendleton’s founding fathers. Aura’s gaze is askance, perhaps affronted at being placed across from the brothel, perhaps to avoid the direct gaze of Madame Stella.

Madam stella Darby
Aura Goodwin

After our tour we had lunch and indulged in a visit to Alexander’s Chocolates  for desert. Alexander’s specializes in four of my favorite things. . .chocolate, wine, coffee, and ice cream. Stephen, one of the owners, spent a great deal of time with us answering our questions about different kinds of chocolate, where it comes from, what all of the names and numbers mean.

Works of art. Some were actually airbrushed!

We had a delicious beverage of blended sipping chocolate and espresso, and a scoop of luscious Kona coffee ice cream. They have tastings of chocolate, as well as wine. I could have stayed all day and they would have had to roil me out in a wheelbarrow and leave me on the curb at closing, but we were getting full, we definitely had exceeded our chocolate budget for the month, and we had several more stops to make.


Our next destination was Pendleton Woolen Mills, probably the name most associated with this town. Unfortunately, we had dawdled too long at Alexander’s and we missed a tour by 15 minutes. We weren’t interested enough to hang around for another 2 hours, so we settled for a quick spin around the mill store and we were on our way.

The history of Pendleton Woolen Mills is one of opportunity, exploration and innovation. British weaver Thomas Kay laid the foundation when he arrived in Oregon in 1863. His expertise lives on in Pendleton’s tweed, flannel and worsted wool apparel. Kay’s grandsons, the three Bishop brothers, opened Pendleton Woolen Mills in the early 1900s. They joined Kay’s weaving skills with stunning Native American-inspired designs in the Pendleton Trade blanket, a benchmark for beauty and quality for over 100 years. Family-owned and operated for more than six generations, the uniquely American story of Pendleton Woolen Mills continues today.                                         —Pendleton USA.com

Pendleton Woolen Mill. Back section original mill, brick section later add-on.

Something to watch out for. . .even though the fabric is woven in this country, many of the garments bear the “Made in China” label.

One of the things that really piqued my interest at Pendleton Underground Tours was a display of miniature saddles made by Duff Severe. Duff Severe was one of the finest saddlers ever to work in this country. I had heard of him when I was working in the Jeff Kask Saddle Shop from 1984 to 1991. The Severe Brothers Saddlery is still operating in Pendleton under the careful craftsmanship of Robin Severe, Duff’s nephew. We decided, since the woolen mill had been a bust, to try to find the saddlery.

Robin Severe met us at the door and very graciously spent a little time with us to allow me to reminisce. He is currently building all of the trophy saddles for the upcoming Pendleton Roundup. The work is beautiful and it was fun to be back in a saddle shop again. I think there’s a song in there somewhere!

Severe Brothers Saddlery. The top floor is rooms given for free to cowboys in town for the Pendleton Roundup
A  Severe Masterpiece

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