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An image of the "Seattle Underground"—in the mid-1800s, the facade seen here was at street level

The Seattle Underground is a network of underground passageways and basements in downtown Seattle, Washington, United States that was ground level at the city's origin in the mid-1800s. After the streets were elevated these spaces fell into disuse, but have become a tourist attraction in recent decades.

Contents

History

Start of the Great Seattle Fire, looking south on 1st Ave. near Madison St.

Seattle's first buildings were wooden. In 1889, a cabinetmaker accidentally overturned and ignited a glue pot. An attempt to extinguish it with water spread the burning grease-based glue. The fire chief was out of town, and although the volunteer fire department responded they made the mistake of trying to use too many hoses at once. They never recovered from the subsequent drop in water pressure, and the Great Seattle Fire destroyed 25 city blocks.[1]

While a destructive fire was not unusual for the time, the response of the city leaders was. Instead of rebuilding the city as it was before, they made two strategic decisions: that all new buildings must be of stone or brick, insurance against a similar disaster in the future; and to regrade the streets one to two stories higher than the original street grade. Pioneer Square had originally been built mostly on filled-in tidelands and, as a consequence, it often flooded. The new street level also assisted in ensuring that gravity-assisted flush toilets that funneled into Elliott Bay did not back up at high tide.

For the regrade, the streets were lined with concrete walls that formed narrow alleyways between the walls and the buildings on both sides of the street, with a wide "alley" where the street was. The naturally steep hillsides were used, and through a series of sluices material was washed into the wide "alleys", raising the streets to the desired new level, generally 12 feet higher than before, in some places nearly 30 feet.

Brick arches provide the ceiling for the underground corridors and support the hollow street sidewalks

At first pedestrians climbed ladders to go between street level and the sidewalks in front of the building entrances. Brick archways, as seen in the image to the left, were constructed next to the road surface, above the submerged sidewalks. Skylights with small panes of clear glass (which later became amethyst-colored because of manganese in the glass) were installed, creating the area now called the Seattle Underground.

The concrete floor of the former meat market was originally at the level of the wooden platform on the left, but sank over time due to decomposing sawdust fill.

When they reconstructed their buildings, merchants and landlords knew that the ground floor would eventually be underground and the next floor up would be the new ground floor, so there is very little decoration on the doors and windows of the original ground floor, but extensive decoration on the new ground floor.

Once the new sidewalks were complete, building owners moved their businesses to the new ground floor, although merchants carried on business in the lowest floors of buildings that survived the fire, and pedestrians continued to use the underground sidewalks lit by the glass cubes (still seen on some streets) embedded in the grade-level sidewalk above.

In 1907 the city condemned the Underground for fear of pneumonic plague, two years before the 1909 World Fair in Seattle (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition). The basements were left to deteriorate or were used as storage. Some became illegal flophouses for the homeless, gambling halls, speakeasies, and opium dens.

Only a small portion of the Seattle Underground has been restored and made safe and accessible to the public on guided tours.

Seattle Underground Tour

A former bank; the vault door is in the background on the right

In 1965, local citizen Bill Speidel realized there might be interest (and profit) in the subterranean ruins. He established "Bill Speidel's Underground Tour" and took customers on a tour of what was left underneath Pioneer Square, paying rent to the building owners for the privilege of doing so. He peppered his tour patter with tall tales from Seattle's history (some more factual than others), giving the tour an amusing counterculture feel that made it an "underground" tour in every sense of the word.

Over the years the tour has become more popular, and the underground structures have been steadily refurbished to be more visually appealing. The tour remains a popular attraction for visitors and locals alike.

In 2004, the Underground Tour organizers began the adults-only Underworld Tour, incorporating discussions of prostitution, the opium trade, and other less family-friendly elements of Seattle's early history.

References in popular culture

In fiction

  • The Art of Deception, by Ridley Pearson
  • Terry Pratchett has cited Seattle as one of the influences in his decision to give Ankh-Morpork its own Underground.
  • A Knight of the Word and Armaggedon's Children by Terry Brooks
  • Pike Place (2007 novel) about the Seattle Underground in 1972.
  • Book three of Kat Richardson's "Greywalker" series entitled Underground (2008) features supernatural murders in and around the Seattle Underground.
  • The 1999 Robert Ryan novel Underdogs is set in the Seattle Underground.
  • Issue 75 of the first volume of the comic book Green Arrow features the Seattle Underground as a setting.

In films and TV

  • The Seattle Underground was featured prominently in the 1973 TV movie The Night Strangler. Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) pursues a story concerning an immortal serial killer hiding amid the ruins of the Seattle Underground (impossibly pictured as a collection of multi-storied buildings rather than the single extant level). The director substituted Los Angeles' famous Bradbury Building for the Underground.
  • An episode of the TV show Scooby-Doo featured the Seattle Underground.
  • Featured on the Sci-Fi Channel series, Ghost Hunters in the Season 3 Episode "Lost Souls" (2007).

In gaming

  • The game Deus Ex: Invisible War has levels located in underground Seattle, which is referred to as "Lower Seattle".
  • In Shadowrun, the Seattle Underground is now referred to as the Ork Underground.

See also

References

Further reading

  • Bill Speidels:
  • Doc Maynard, The Man Who Invented Seattle. 1978, USA: Nettle Creek. ISBN 0-914890-02-6.
  • Sons of the Profits. 1990, USA: Nettle Creek. ISBN 0-914890-06-9.

External links








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