Underground Seattle: City Beneath a City
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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Love these hidden gems you found! xo Loren // http://www.thinkelysian.com
I am so sorry I missed this when I was in Seattle How very interesting!
Jacquie, it was very interesting. Such a fascinating story of raising the street level. Something to keep in mind for a future visit to Seattle.
That’s something I’d love to do in Seattle, and I may actually get the chance. We’re hoping to go this fall. I had no idea about the underground tours in Seattle, though. Totally up my alley. Thanks for this.
Jill, I hope you do get to Seattle – lots to see and do. The Pioneer Square where the underground tours occur is full of history.
We did this tour in 2007! Quite a “city!” Hope all the renovation will not obliterate all sections.
Carol, quite a city indeed! It’s nice that renovation is making use of parts of the underground, but I too hope they are able to keep parts of it close to original while still making it safe for tourists to visit.
Wow, I had no idea this existed. What an amazing thing we humans have accomplished!
I have been to the Atlanta underground a while back, but it seems more commercial. The Seattle underground is so raw and practically untouched. Very cool.
Josie, I didn’t know that Atlanta also had an underground. It would be interesting to visit that someday. Much of Seattle’s underground is untouched (and likely not safe). It might be interesting to see if it becomes more commercial over the years.
I love Seattle, but never knew about the underground – how cool! Will definitely have to check it out next time I am there!
It is a fun tour.
Found your blog by doing a “Blog Journey” on my own reaching out to new bloggers and connecting. How interesting! I live in New Jersey and have never been out west. I hear things about Seattle from those who have traveled there.. but how interesting – I never knew this or heard about it! What a tour this must be. What I love is the history you bring to life… life and years just keep plowing by. It’s nice to know in some places we can look back.
Lesley, welcome. I’m glad you came across my blog. This was my first trip to Seattle – it’s a great place.
I have heard about the Seattle underground city but have only explored above ground. Nice photos and narrative.
Thanks Charles. There is certainly lots to explore above ground in Seattle too.
I’ve been to Seattle three times, but two of those times were for a writing conference. The other time was for a few days, and that is when I first learned about the underground tunnels. On my next visit I’ll be sure to make time to fit a tour in.
Jeri, I think you’d enjoy the tour and the history of the Pioneer Square area.
Wow, We had no idea this existed. Next time in Seattle we have to see this, it is incredible.
Veronica, I think it is the type of tour you and David would enjoy.
You just expanded my reasons to visit Seattle, Donna. I think this tour would be great fun–what a way to view a thriving, bustling city. Tagging this post for future reference!
RoseMary, Seattle was a fun visit in total.
I’ve never taken the Underground Seattle Tour, but I did enjoy taking it just now via your story and images. It’s on my list for next time I’m in town.
Thanks Carole – glad you enjoyed my version of the tour!
I have visited Seattle several times, but I’ve never heard of underground Seattle. Just another excuse for me to make another visit to that beautiful city and the Pacific Northwest. 🙂
Suzanne, I think it would be pretty easy to come up a long list of excuses to visit Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, but I’m glad I could help you with one.
I’ve never been in Seattle, but your post definitely made me very curious about this city. I should definitely visit the city and when I do I won’t forget to visit the underground part. Thanks for letting me know about this part of it.
Anda, I found Seattle to be a beautiful and interesting city. The underground tour was certainly a unique find.