Karol Armstrong has 30 years of stories about the Pendleton Underground in her brain.
One popped to mind recently as the longtime Underground tour guide gazed around the dimly lit Shamrock Card Room. Faux cowboys played poker and a saloon girl mannequin sat on the bar wearing a come-hither look.
Near the beginning of Pendleton Underground Tours three decades earlier, she said, tours featured a mixture of mannequins and live volunteers dressed in vintage clothing scattered around the card room. One day, in a “sexy-looking floozy dress,” Armstrong hopped onto the bar near the fake card-playing cowboys and arranged herself. She propped one of the cowboy’s hands on her knee. When a tour group entered, a tourist inspected the tableau and approached Armstrong.
“The lady looked me up and down, flipped my skirt up and said, ‘This one’s not half bad,’” Armstrong recalled.
When Armstrong thanked her, the woman gasped in shock.
The popular Pendleton tourist attraction is approaching its third decade of existence. Stories and memories abound.
The city’s underground tunnels always carried mystique. In the late 1980s, a group decided to open up one section of tunnels for tours. They would add furnishings from the era and tell the story of Pendleton in bawdier times.
The idea distressed some. The tour, especially after an above-ground bordello was added, would shine a spotlight on a messy history.
“There were 32 bars and 18 brothels in a four-block area,” said Brooke Armstrong, the Underground’s executive director and not related to Karol Armstrong. “There were naysayers.”
“Saloons and brothels were our main industry,” said local realtor and organizer Greg Brooks in an early East Oregonian story about the ribbon cutting. “We were the entertainment capitol of the Northwest. Such a capitol should not be forgotten. The unfortunate thing about the type of history we’re trying to recreate is that it’s a kind of history that no one has ever cared to record. And we believe all history should be recorded whether you like it or not.”
Pendleton had few women in those days and an abundance of male cowboys, sheepherders and miners. They liked to get wild.
“It was kind of a seamy, seedy history,” said Phil Garton, the first president of the Pendleton Underground board in a 1989 East Oregonian story just before the opening. “Nobody has any more colorful past.”
The history also included hundreds of Chinese men who came from Shanghai to build the railroad in the early 1800s.
The Underground had a story to tell. Early organizers pushed past the detractors and got busy. More than 300 volunteers pitched in, clearing debris and helping with construction during 113 full-day work parties. Organizers had predicted that development of the Underground would take around $50,000, but the restoration actually cost $1,000 because of all the volunteerism and donations of time from local contractors. The attraction opened in September of 1989.
Later, the tour expanded to include the Cozy Rooms, a bordello run by Madam Stella Darby.
About 12,000 visitors took the tour that first year. In 2018, almost 18,000 people visited. Ticket sales for 2018 were $255,785.
In 1989, people bought tickets from a hole-in-the-wall office on Southwest First Street. Guides hung a be-back-soon sign on the door when they left to guide tours. Now the business takes up a half a block and includes a gift store, the Duff Severe Gallery, the Working Girls Hotel and the A Piece of Pendleton store.
In 1989, tickets cost $5 for the underground tour, $5 for the bordello tour or $9 for both. Today you pay $15 for one 90-minute tour that encompasses all.
Modern tour-goers explore much the same turf as in the early days — a saloon, ice cream shop, Chinese jail, opium den, Prohibition-era card room with an escape exit and a Chinese laundry where a dusty cowboy could soak for 10 cents while his clothing was cleaned. Outside and up 32 stairs is the Cozy Rooms, a bordello run by Madam Stella Darby. The 10 recreated rooms include a chapel where the girls could seek spiritual guidance from a circuit riding minister.
Pam Severe, who served as executive director for the bulk of its existence, felt a special connection with Darby, said Brooke Armstrong (who is Severe’s daughter). Severe researched Darby and planned to write a book about her. The madam, who never worked as a prostitute, paid her girls well, taught them to budget and helped them to escape the life when they were ready.
Severe died in 2012 at age 59 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma before the book was finished.
Fritz Hill, board member for 15 years, said Severe was the Underground’s engine.
“She dedicated her life to this,” Hill said. Even at the end in her hospital bed, “she was still transcribing notes for her book. She was dying and she was giving her last breath to the Underground.”
The board hired Severe’s daughter, Brooke Armstrong, as director. Armstrong had grown up running around the tunnels, playing hide-and-seek with her brother and acting in Underground Comes Alive tours. In honor of Severe, the Underground financed a bronze of Madam Stella to sit on Main Street at a spot tour groups pass on the way to the Cozy Rooms.
Armstrong remembers the blowback from some community members who disliked the idea of immortalizing a madam in bronze. She felt sadness at the negative letters to the editor, but decided to turn it around. These days, every tour group poses with Stella and Armstrong posts them on the Underground’s social media pages. If she forgets, tour-goers call and remind her.
“She’d definitely the most popular statue on Main Street,” Armstrong said of Stella.
Karol Armstrong, at 75, still likes leading tours. In the early day, she felt shy about talking to all those people and even joined Toastmasters to hone her speaking skills. She wrote her own copy and incorporated unearthed stories and factoids along the way.
These days, she said, “I don’t even have to think anymore. I open my mouth and it just comes out.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.