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.
What 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.
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.
But 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.
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: http://www.undergroundtour.com/