Halfway through my year in Seattle my mom and brother came to visit. It was Spring 2019 and it rained almost every day, so I had to dig up some indoor activities to keep them entertained. This was how I came across Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Not usually one for history, I can honestly say that this is one of Seattle’s most underrated attractions!
The tour is situated in Pioneer Square, a historical neighborhood southwest of Downtown Seattle, where the city was founded in 1851. In contrast to Downtown, the architectural character of this neighborhood derives from late 19th Century brick and stone buildings. These buildings replaced the original wooden structures that were destroyed by the Great Seattle Fire in 1889.
We learned that Pioneer Square was originally built on filled-in tidelands one level lower than it is today, which often became flooded by sewage.
First, only the streets were raised to free up space underneath for draining systems. This means that the buildings were still one level lower.
Pedestrians had to climb ladders to go between street level and the sidewalks to enter buildings. I remember the tour guide telling a rather comical story about how some folks would fall down a ladder after a oh-so-jolly night at the brothel. I believe the aftermath was less comical, as these ladders varied from 4 to 9 meters high…
Over the gap from the raised street to the lower-level building, pavement lights were installed to allow sunlight onto the underground sidewalks. These are small square panes of glass, also known as skylights, and are still present on many sidewalks today.
Merchants and landlords knew that the ground floor would eventually be underground, so there’s very little decoration on doors and windows. Once buildings were raised, extensive decoration was applied to exterior on the new ground floor.
Most businesses moved to the new ground floor while usage of the underground structures and sky-lit sidewalks were still used until 1907, when the Underground was threatened by the bubonic plague. Since then, basements were mainly used for storage or illegal businesses such as gambling, speakeasies, opium smoke dens or housing for the homeless.
In 1965, a local citizen called Bill Speidel established the Underground Tour, allowing visitors to explore small portions of what remains of Seattle’s original Underground city.
The tour took about two hours and ended with a display of Underground Antiques, followed by a gift shop.
Apparently New York City also has a lot going on in its underbelly, and I believe so does many other cities worldwide. If you ever have the opportunity to dig a little deeper into a city’s roots, I’d highly recommend it!
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you may like my previous post on Seattle as well: https://forevernadsabroad.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/seattle-rain-to-rainbows/