Underground Seattle

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elevated indoor latrine

as many of you know, each year several of my college friends meet up for a mini-reunion weekend and, along with all the catching up, watching cheesy movies, and generally having a rollicking good time, we make it a point to visit someplace “odd” or go on a tour of someplace kitchy or uber-touristy. while the more fantastic-than-kitchy Chihuly exhibit would have sufficed, we’d already penciled in a trip beneath Seattle’s streets around Pioneer Square.

in the heart of the northwest woods, the original buildings of Seattle were made of timber. in June of 1889 a cabinetmaker knocked over flame and set his glue alight; when he tried to extinguish the fire with water, it simply spread. upon responding, the volunteer firefighters overtaxed the water pressure by using too many hoses and as a result some 31 square blocks of the fledgling town were destroyed. this devastation proved something of a boon for city planners, however, who had plans to improve living conditions in the city but lacked the means or mode to make it happen.

essentially, the relationship between the sewer system of early Seattle and tide waters into which the effluent flowed wasn’t terribly favorable for those who wished to keep sewage in sewers rather than all over the insides of residences and otherwise clean and sanitary buildings. while the tide was out, the plumbing worked just fine with the aid of gravity, taking the unwanted materials out to the low tide flats at the edge of Puget Sound; when the tide came in, however, it went rushing back up the pipes with unwanted effect. city planners wanted to level out the grade of the Denny Hill, bringing it down from something ridiculous (I swear our guide said 45 percent …) to something reasonable (along the lines of 10 or 12 percent) but the presence of buildings and business owners with businesses in said buildings who opposed the idea of closing down for the years a regrade would require made that challenging. even the fire and destruction of those buildings didn’t temper the protests of the business owners — the regrade was projected to take upwards of a decade and they had no intention of waiting that long to rebuild. so the two sides came to a compromise of sorts: the business owners would go ahead with their speedier plans and rebuild on the same level and in the existing grid pattern while the city would move forward with their regrade project and deal with the height disparity when the problem presented itself. between 1902 and 1911, water from Lake Union was pumped to the top of the hill where hydraulic mining techniques basically flushed the top of the hill down towards the bottom of the hill.

former underground marketplace

thus the Seattle Underground. even though the regrade project began in 1902, with retaining walls put up to protect sidewalks before filling and repaving the streets at the new level, the elevation of sidewalks didn’t occur for several years. instead, ladders stood at corners and people were obliged to climb up and down them to access businesses. according to our guide, this proved somewhat dangerous for the largely-male population of early-20th century Seattle; go out for a few rounds with mates, get confused about where (or whether) a ladder stood and end the evening with a tumble in to the underground. allegedly, several death certificates from this period have “involuntary suicide” down as the cause of death.

eventually, new sidewalks went up, supported by brick archways, but that didn’t eliminate shopping on the now-underground level — it just became an early indoor mall which was great in Seattle’s weather. to make the underground shopping experience more appealing, some areas of the new sidewalk included glass blocks that allowed light to filter to the subterranean level. initially, the glass was clear using the recently discovered technique of adding manganese to the process. now those same blocks appear amethyst in color due to the effects of time on manganese.

deciding under purple light
to walk through the dark bank vault

as business shifted to the upper levels, the lower were given over to less savory elements — including a huge rat infestation. underground markets had been held on wooden platforms built over hard packed dirt floors, allowing plenty of space and resources for vermin to thrive and potentially spread unwanted diseases, like the  bubonic plague. stemming from fear of a disease outbreak at an inopportune time, Seattle condemned the lower levels of buildings in 1907 though they remain, quite clearly, structurally sound and the routes the Tours take are cleaned up though in varying states of upkeep. it was incongruous to see some, situated beneath abandoned or disused buildings, filled with detritus and broken furniture while another, situated under a thriving department-type store, was swept up, well-lit and immaculate.

when our guide discovered that our group consisted entirely of people over the age of consent, she gave us a choice of how to make our way out of the second-to-last underground space: with the lights on like scardy-cats or like spelunking adventurers (my phrases) using naught but the light of our collective cell-phones to guide us. we opted for the latter and, just as we set off across the uneven footing she told us that the ghost of a failed bank robber was rumored to haunt the abandoned bank vault through which we were about to walk. in the dark. said alleged ghost did not attempt to snatch any of our party.

once back on the surface, it was back across the intersection of Yesler and First, under a wrought-iron pergola built in 1909 and knocked over twice by semis in the last eleven years, back underground for one last nugget of tawdry history and out through the conveniently-connected gift shop and “museum.” the area’s now recognized as an historic district and resides on the National Register of Historic Places.

oh! and once again, one of my favorite forms of social-media-based entertainment had an entry that inspired me to get working on a post I’d been mulling for some time! check out the “Subterranean Cities” episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class for more about some famous or infamous underground places. they don’t make any mention of the Victoria Arches in Manchester, though, which sound fascinating and a bit like Underground Seattle!

Author: Erica

born in the midwest with wandering feet.