Going underground: the mysteries of subterranean Seattle

Destinations

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Beneath the fish-flinging of Pike Place, the iconic thrust of the Space Needle, and the over-hopped local beer, there are stories below the streets of Seattle that you might not be aware of…

Above ground, Seattle wasn’t looking promising. A series of wildfires in the hills to the east meant that as the bus from Portland headed up the I5 early in the morning, almost nothing could be seen through the smoke.

Seattle Space Needle — David SzmidtThe Space Needle is one of Seattle’s most prominent landmarks — David Szmidt

Arriving at 9.30 am at a cold, empty parking lot where my friend Sarah was waiting for me, everything seemed a touch other-worldly. The idea was this: as I was only here for a day, we’d knock off a couple of sights while catching up, having not seen each other in a few years. So… market, Space Needle, lunch, troll (no, me neither), brewery. That was the general plan. However, it also included something I’d heard about but Sarah, in her six years in the city, hadn’t. We were going to head underground.

Pike Place Market — tick. The smoke made the waterfront impenetrable, and there’s only so much lads-flinging-fish-about I can take before it loses its novelty. Space Needle — tick. It looked in its sci-fi element against the attempted blue of a struggling sky. Lunch. Excellent, at the appropriately-named Damn the Weather. Right then. Ready? Ready.

A city built on sand

Seattle's Fremont Troll sculpture — David SzmidtThe Fremont Troll — David Szmidt

Entering through a pair of sliding doors that felt oddly off compared to the shabbily grand surroundings of Pioneer Square, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour begins with participants taking their seats for a potted history of Seattle’s early days. Our guide was to be a chap called Clay (“like the pigeon”), who delivered his scripted jokes with the cadence of someone who desperately wanted to be much-missed master of the one-liner, Mitch Hedberg. I’m going to be generous and say that tales of Seattle sewage systems don’t lend themselves to surreal flights of fancy, hence a lot of the jokes failing to land, but he gamely plowed on. To be fair, the historical background was a solid, well-researched and, as it turns out, essential preamble to the tour itself.

Basically, what it boils down to is this: Seattle had terrible problems with sewage and drainage, being built on filled-in, silty land that kept flooding due to the tides in Elliot Bay. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 was, in a way, a blessing — no one was killed, but the (mainly wooden) city was burnt to the ground. Here was an opportunity.

Sketch of Seattle's underground construction — David SzmidtA cool illustration of Seattle’s post-fire rebuild — David Szmidt

Citizens were asked to rebuild, using masonry rather than wood this time, but were given warning that the ground level of their stores and workshops would eventually become the basement. The streets were filled with a one-storey-high central section that represented the roadway, run through with a drainage system that was clearly essential to the ‘new’ city. For people wanting to shop or visit other businesses at this time, trips necessitated clambering up and down a series of ladders at each intersection, as shopkeepers continued trading out of their ‘basements’ for the four years or so that work continued. When the roadways were completely in place, sidewalks were added, bridging the gaps, making the lower levels into basements, and what are today the ground floors accessible from the street. The basement levels were eventually closed off, becoming what we were about to see.

Going underground

Old shop sign in the catacombs of Seattle — David SzmidtDescending into the maze, you’re taking a step back in time — David Szmidt

So, into the catacombs we went. Each section is a small block of what were shop fronts, some in better shape than others, but with each section accompanied by a timeline of what occurred. Once that section had been seen, you ascended some narrow steps and out into the light before being led around the corner to another utterly nondescript door that you wouldn’t ever have noticed otherwise. This could be a door to a house, a utility shed or a maintenance trapdoor, but all leading to another block or so of underground streets mirroring those above.

The more we walked, the more we discovered. We looked through glass grates on the ceiling to the oblivious pedestrians above. We discovered the fate of the tunnels after they’d been covered over (prohibition-era gambling parlors, flophouses, speakeasies, opium dens and other, literally-and-metaphorically underground activities). We heard that, in their desperation to rid the tunnels of the rats that had been slowly taking over, the city placed a 10-cent bounty on every rat killed, to be claimed if you brought a tail as proof. One enterprising citizen took this too far, specifically breeding rats purely to kill them and claim the bounty. Grim stuff, no matter which side of the rat/human argument you stand on.

Catacombs of Seattle — David SzmidtIt’s (probably) not as unsafe as it looks — David Szmidt

We also learned of the remarkable Lou Graham, proprietor of a parlor house comparable to the finest hotels in the city. Her proposal was that by making sex work legal, it could be taxable, the workers could have employment rights, and both the job and the health risks associated with it could be discussed and dealt with more openly. She became so successful that many businesses relied on taking loans from her — higher rates than a bank, but less formal. She was forward-thinking in her attitude to sexuality, hiring people open to same-sex dalliances, and employing trans women. All of this led to Lou Graham contributing more to charities in fields such as children’s education than the rest of the city’s prominent citizens combined; indeed, no individual gave more to charitable causes in Seattle and the region until the arrival of Bill Gates. 

Well-hidden, but well worth it

Old building sign in Seattle's catacombs — David SzmidtAll in all, taking the underground tour has to be the best thing you can do in Seattle — David Szmidt

For 75 minutes we picked our way through the subterranean streets, past abandoned frontages and along cracked pavements, hearing stories and finding out about the people who made the place tick. The tunnels apparently stretch for an area of about three blocks by 11, but visitors are only allowed to take in four sections or so. Those four, however, were some of the most unusual things I have ever seen in (or below) a city.

We said farewell to Clay — he’d grown on us throughout the tour — and reflected on the remarkable (some would say utterly insane) ingenuity that created this. If necessity is the mother of invention, then this is the child that Seattle decided to sell to a traveling freak show. A bizarre relic of the past, tame now, but still able to make people gawp in astonishment, whether they choose to or not.

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