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Exploring the history of the original Seattle, Washington,
one to two stories below current ground level
Walking through historic Pioneer Square in Seattle, Washington, it’s hard to imagine the original city is actually underneath me, below street level.
Seattle was founded in 1851 by Illinois settlers known as the Denny Party. Pioneer Square was the heart of the early city. Even though it was built on tideflats and subject to flooding, the city grew. By 1889, the year of the Great Seattle Fire, the city had about 20,000 residents. On June 6 of that year a cabinet-maker accidentally spilled a glue pot. It started on fire. Attempts to put out the grease fire caused it to spread. Firefighters responded but used too many hoses at once and depleted water pressure. Fire spread rapidly through the wooden buildings and 31 blocks of Pioneer Square were destroyed.
The city rebuilt. New construction in the area was required to be of brick or steel. The city took the opportunity to raise the city out of its swampy grounds. Retaining walls were built along the sides of the street and filled in to raise the roads one to two stories higher than the original grade.
Businesses which had rebuilt now found their first or second story below ground level. Initially pedestrians climbed ladders to get to the sidewalks below, sandwiched between store fronts and the retaining walls. It can’t have been easy for the ladies with their long dresses.
Skylights with small panes of glass were installed at street level to provide light to the sidewalks below. Some can still be seen today, many of the panes turned amethyst-coloured over the years because of the manganese in the glass. Eventually new sidewalks were built at ground level and building owners moved their businesses to the ground floor. However, merchants also continued to use the lower level and pedestrians the underground sidewalks. In 1907, the City condemned the Underground out of fear of bubonic plague. Some basements continued to be used for storage or seedier purposes (flophouses, speakeasies, drug dens), but over time the underground city was forgotten.
In the 1960s, Bill Spiedl, Seattle Times columnist and self-made historian, researched the history of the underground city and began giving tours. His company still gives tours today. Other companies now also offer tours. I took my tour with Beneath the Streets. Underground ghost hunt tours are available through other companies.
Only a portion of Seattle’s underground has been restored and made safe for tour groups. We saw three different sections of the underground – one looking much as it might have years ago, one in the process of being renovated for modern use, and one already renovated and in use. We went above ground between the sections, hearing stories of Seattle’s past along the way.
The tour was an entertaining way to get a glimpse into Seattle’s past and hear some of its colourful history. Have you toured Seattle’s underground or visited any other underground cities?
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