The Seattle Underground

“Well, you have to visit the Underground,” a friend told me over dinner last fall. It was just before I took off for my first trip to Seattle, and my head raced with questions. What underground? Was there some sort of impressive underground rail system in Seattle? Was “the Underground” a little-known community within the town?  Some sort of artistic district I just had to see?

As it turns out, my friend referred to an actual underground Seattle. An entire historic city, located beneath the modern-day one. As soon as I figured that out, I immediately booked a ticket to tour the caves, tunnels, and corridors of the historic Seattle Underground.

IMG_8295What a fascinating tour it proved to be. There’s not much in the way of structure left, but all the foundations and even some of the streets are still there. There’s store front windows, preserved brick archways, and a bank teller window. All of this going on while the Seattle residents thump their way past overhead. It’s incredible, really. What’s also incredible is the story of how it got there, and how an entire city got raised because of a string of disasters.

In the years following Seattle’s founding in 1851, the inhabitants had a good few things going for them, like Henry Yesler’s famous saw mill and accompanying wharfs. Thanks to his efforts, lumber was the city’s biggest export, and it helped build most of the all-wooden buildings and sidewalks in the business districts and residential areas. When someone found coal in the Cascade mountains in the 1870s, that quickly became Seattle’s second-biggest export. With the help of these and some hard-working citizens endowed with the “Seattle Spirit,” the town had the makings of something special. However, there came some hiccups and major disruptions.

One of the biggest problems was the rain. At that time, a lot of Seattle had been built right on the waterfront of Puget Sound. Sawdust from Mr. Yesler’s mill gave the false impression of solid ground to build on. But actually, it was a soft, squishy outlet that didn’t do well with the copious amounts of rain and waves at high tide. To combat regular flooding, many of the buildings were hoisted up on wooden stilts. However, the tides and extra water still wreaked havoc, especially with the sewer system. A cheap, shoddy job of wooden tunnels beneath the buildings, the system backed up every day when the tide came in. While locals knew damn well to stay away from toilets during high tide, visitors weren’t so fortunate.  Seattle became infamous for its “fountain toilets” that… well… didn’t spew water. IMG_8307

As if constant rain and fecal-riddled toilet explosions weren’t enough, Seattle encountered another big problem in 1889 – the Great Seattle Fire. It started near Pioneer Square in a cabinet shop, where an employee spilled hot glue onto a huge pile of wood shavings. Since the entire city was just one giant pile of lumber, the fire went from a small blaze to a devastating inferno in a matter of minutes. Firemen scrambled to get as many hoses onto the blaze as possible. But in one of history’s greatest ironies, a city that had more rain than it ever knew what to do with had no adequate water system to extinguish a fire. In desperation, they turned all their hydrants on at once and the water pressure plummeted, rendering the fire hoses virtually useless. They encountered further resistance when the blaze hit the hardware store – stocked with both highly flammable liquors and even ammunition. So, in addition to burning the city to the ground, the fire also started flinging bullets everywhere.

When all was said and done, the Great Seattle Fire completely leveled the downtown business districts, and cost about fifteen million dollars in damages. It would be a disaster by anyone’s standard, but in the end, the fire might be one of the best things that ever happened to Seattle. Because it helped the city officials take a long, hard look at some improvements that could be made to their fair settlement. They decided not only to improve the water and sewer systems, but they also moved on an idea to “regrade” the city – in other words, they wanted to raise it the hell off the low-lying tidal flats. City Engineer Reginald Thompson spearheaded the massive effort, which entailed tearing down some of the large slopes to the north of the city, and using the dirt to “fill in” the lower parts.

IMG_8302But where to get the money for such an endeavor? The business district had been reduced to tents sprung up on ashes. Exports had slowed to a crawl, due to an economic depression, and what I can only imagine must have been one big belly full of lumber. Well, fate intervened once again in 1897, when the steamship Portland sailed into the Seattle Harbor, loaded down with thousands of pounds of gold. The Klondike gold rush was on, and Seattle found a very profitable business in “mining the miners.” They sold them supplies, equipment, groceries, clothes, and anything else they needed, which was a lot. It’s mining! The city’s population exploded, and the money rolled in.

With all these new funds, coupled with donation money for fire relief, Reginald Thompson got to work on the regrading, setting his sights on Denny Hill and Jackson Street. From the years 1899 to 1914, he had the streets taken apart in gradual pieces, and he used the dirt to cover over the tidal flats and raise the whole area of Pioneer Square. In some places, workers raised it well over forty feet. In the process, old Seattle and its wooden ruins got buried underground. For a while, both parts of the city remained fully operational.  However, once the regrading was complete, the lower level closed up shop, and Seattle enjoyed their newfound wealth and prominence.IMG_8306

Several decades later, in the early 1960s, a man named Bill Speidel entered the picture. In an era of rapid development, he was deeply passionate about saving Pioneer Square, the city’s birth place filled with historic landmarks, from the wrecking balls. While working his connections to turn the area into a historic site, he poked his way through some underground passages, and discovered “the forgotten city which lies beneath Seattle’s modern streets.” He brought the story to the local newspaper, and what a response it garnered. After the article appeared, Speidel’s office became a flood of letters and visitors, all inquiring about tours of the mysterious city underground.

Suddenly, Speidel had the answer to his problem. If he could create an attraction out of the underground, the historic district could be preserved. He spent the next nine months exploring all the underground tunnels and passage ways. With the help of interested financial backers, and eager local volunteers, they cleaned out the debris, forged a pathway, and started preparing for tourists. In May of 1965, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce offered to feature the underground tour as a part of their “Know Your Seattle Day” fair. The first day alone, over 500 people toured the now-famous Seattle Underground at one dollar a head.

With that, one of Seattle’s most famous attractions was born. Last fall, I was most excited to go and see it for myself. While Seattle residents hurried on with their day overhead, I explored a forgotten part of their history under the ground. While a lot of it is falling to ruin, it was still an amazing glimpse backward in time.  Taking the underground tour surrounded me with relics and structures of a bygone era. It also reminded me that sometimes the most fascinating stories of history are the ones that are, quite literally, buried beneath our feet.



 “Seattle Underground” – B. Speidel

“Postcard History Series:  Seattle” – M. Sundquist

Seattle Underground Tour

All photos by M.B. Henry.  For more on Seattle and Washington, please visit my photo gallery.  

Want to experience the Underground?  Book your tour here: 

72 Comments on “The Seattle Underground

  1. This is incredibly fascinating, M.B. I’ve visited Seattle twice, but never knew most of what’s in your great post. Excellent photos, too.

    • I had never heard of it! If my friend didn’t mention it to me, I never would have known. Glad you enjoyed the article and photos – it was a pretty fun tour! 🙂

  2. Thanks for a great post. I toured the underground years ago when I was stationed at Fort Lewis. It was a trip through the looking glass. Our tour group followed the guide through a nondescript door into a different world.

    • What a fantasic description of what the underground is like! Well put! I’m glad the post stirred up some memories for you. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Glad you liked it! I didnt know about it either until my friend happened to mention it. Glad he did!

  3. Great post! And let me share with you that you have a true talent of telling the story, it is like I am all the way back in history with you. And with that said keep up the great stories and I will keep checking in more and more with you to coming posts about what you and history are going to teach me. Until then many blessings to you and your family…

    • Wow how very flattering! It’s my life’s work to share the history, so I’m so glad to reach you and others. Can’t wait to have you back for more!

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It was a fun way to learn a lot about Seattle

    • Me too! I love the hidden stories like this. Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for giving it a read!

    • You’re most welcome! Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post! I do recommend it next time you’re in Seattle

  4. I live about 90 miles north of Seattle and toured the Underground back in 2008 or 2009. It was so fascinating! Of course with time I had forgotten many of these details. Thank you for bringing it back to life!!

    • Yay! Glad you enjoyed the post and the tour. Happy to help recall some fond memories for you!

  5. I lived in Seattle for 3 years in the late 1960s and never heard about the underground Seattle or the events that created it. What a fascinating story – thanks for sharing it.

    • You are most welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes it’s amazing how little known it is. I never would have known about it if my friend didn’t just happen to mention it over dinner!

  6. fascinating. though i’d have never gone under ground. i feel claustrophobic just thinking about it. but this post has it all: interesting, funny, horrifiying – the way the fire just spread on and on.
    great read.

    • Thank you! If it’s any comfort, I’m claustrophobic as well. I was worried about freaking out but there’s no tight squeezes and everything is very open down there. In case you ever want to try it 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post, I just loved your poem about time yesterday.

      • I think it’s the concept that will make me freak out more – i’m blind, so just knowing i’m underground will do the trick for me.

  7. Fascinating as always. But may I take a moment to take you to task over this sentence? “In the years following Seattle’s discovery in 1851, the inhabitants had a difficult time.”

    It is the use of the word ‘discovery’ that perplexes me – as if some white people came around the corner and discovered their nascent city already there! I think you mean ‘founding’, or possibly the more accurate ‘starting a town on some land previously (or still) owned and occupied by the long-established indigenous population’. Not quite the same tidy sentence you had, but with a better nuance, methinks.

    • Thanks for the tip – always nice to have fresh eyes looking at a piece to point out better ways to word things. Of course I more meant “founding” and don’t mean to disregard any indigenous populations. Thanks for giving this a read.

    • And thank you for taking the time to read it! 🙂 glad you enjoyed it. There’s always your next visit for checking it out in person!

      • I will for sure be doing that! I was a history major so you captured my interest immediately:)

      • Wow that’s fantastic about the history major! Good for you! Always happy when I can please my fellow history enthusiasts 🙂

    • Hey I didnt either! If that friend had not mentioned it I never would have. Glad you enjoy the posts, I really like your blog too!

  8. Wow how amazing and so beautifully told. I can feel,your passion in every word and I’m sure it’s something you will never forget. I’m intrigued and hope to get to see it someday myself. Thank you 💙

  9. I was lucky enough to go on this tour a few years ago and, like you said, it is fascinating. So glad to read the history because I’d forgotten some of these events. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and for bringing back some good memories.

    • Always glad when I can stir up good memories! 🙂 glad you enjoyed the post

  10. Interesting post, MB. I’ve heard about the underground city and tours, but have never been down there; and found the history and background you describe intriguing. Seattle is a great city.

    • I definitely enjoyed Seattle. I’m looking forward to going back in April 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post! If you decide to head to the underground, I’m sure you will love it.

  11. So I have been meaning to comment on this post because we went on the Speidel’s underground tour in 2015 and I was hooked by the amount of history secreted under the very ground that people tread on. Your words echoed my feelings of awe as we walked there in the dark and let our imagination take over. My favourite story was of the brothel madame, Lou Graham, who bossed over the city at the time. xx

    • Ha! I remember that story too! It was fantastic. I thought about including it here but couldn’t quite figure out where to put it. Thanks so much for stopping by, glad the post helped bring back some memories 🙂

      • You did well in your post… at least your readers are not dozing off with the extra padding of information. This was one of my favourite moments spent in Seattle. xx

  12. I really enjoyed reading this post! It was full of interesting facts and was funny. “Fecal-ridden toilet explosions”–great phrase :). I got to visit Seattle Underground a few years back and loved it. I loved reading all of the things here about it I didn’t know. Thanks so much, Friend!

    • You’re very welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that it gave you some laughs. Those are important 🙂

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was glad some of the pictures turned out it was hard to get good ones since it was a little dark down there!

  13. Really interesting! We visited Seattle once but didn’t know about this – I wish we had. There is something similar – Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh which I enjoyed. Thanks for visiting The Glasgow Gallivanter.

    • You are welcome! I’m glad you visited here too and that you enjoyed the post. I find not many people know about the underground so I’m happy to help spread the word!

  14. Wow! May I reblog this? I describe this another way in my memoir, “Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks, Searching for My Father.” My father, Hans Pederson, built those sunken sidewalks as he helped Reginald Thomson regrade Seattle along with other alumni of the Klondike Gold Rush. When I took that tour the guide said, “I never imagined that the daughter of the man that built those sidewalks would come along 100 years later and take my tour

    • Wow that’s fantastic! I actually read that article you posted, I enjoyed it very much just as I do the rest of your blog. Of course you may reblog this if you’d like 🙂 I would be honored!

    • Thank you! I’m glad you stopped by and enjoyed it. If you ever find yourself in Seattle, you should definitely go. Its worth it for all the learning alone!

  15. I will have to check this out next time we are in town. Interesting stuff. Have you ever done the underground tours of Edinburgh Scotland?

    • I have never been to Scotland! I hope to someday soon though. Sounds like it would be amazing. Thanks for stopping by, hope you enjoy the Seattle underground!

    • You’re most welcome! It seems to be one of the lesser-known tourist attractions of Seattle and I was a bit surprised by that. I highly encourage trying it if you’re ever in town, because you learn so much about Seattle’s history! Thanks for stopping by I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  16. I lived in Seattle and went to Library School at UW. I knew it the Underground but never the history. I love this blog post. It’s informative and interesting.

    • So glad you enjoyed it! The tour was fascinating, it gave us a good chance to learn about Seattle’s general history as well as the Underground. I’ve visited Seattle a good few times, since I have a very good friend who lives up there. I always enjoy my visits and learn something new 🙂

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