Today, Seattle, Washington is a thriving hub of a city up on a hill. However, back in the mid 19th century, the city looked much different than it does today. Beneath the Pioneer Square neighborhood, exists an underground series of passageways and old building structures that once sat at ground level and has a storied past.
In the beginnings of the city, “grunge” did not refer to plaid-laden rock bands. Rather, the development and logging of low lying lands led to frequent flooding and mucky mud, which led to even worse sanitation problems. Our tour guide even regailed stories of the tide causing their new indoor plumbing to explode like a fire hydrant at unexpected times – not sure if this was a tall tale or not, but it certainly got a few squeamish laughs from the group. What is now Yesler Way is even sighted as the original “Skid Row”, a term now used to describe a particularly dilapidated street.
After the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed much of the original buildingscape, the city had plans to build the city up several stories to avoid the existing flooding. Almost unimaginable amounts of dirt and debris were used to build up the city and fill in spaces, and no material was off limits, supposedly even animal carcasses! However, some business owners began rebuilding before this new plan was implemented and the city allowed them to remain a whole story or three below where the new building was to be!
Once building was complete, a gaping tunnel lined each side of the streets where ladders were placed for city residents to access the businesses. It does not sound like much fun to me to carry everything you buy up and down a ladder that could be as tall as thirty-five feet, but people apparently did it!
The gaping hole didn’t last too long, as seventeen deaths of reportedly intoxicated men falling into these holes caused the area to be enclosed completely underground and things took a turn for the worst.
Businesses understandably lost customers as the dark depths of the underground commercial district attracted less than wholesome activity, particularly as it coincided with an huge influx of mostly male gold miners en route to the Alaskan Yukon. Theft, drug dealing, and murders abound as well as a prostitution market that included 2,000 women claiming to be “seamstresses” when the census came around. All night banks, such as the one pictured here, only made it easier for shady dealings to go on any time of day or night.
The area was completely closed off in the early twentieth century, and the whole Pioneer Square neighborhood fell into disrepair and almost forgotten. Artists and other transient people would start to dwell in the underground tunnels and they remained less than safe. It was Bill Spiegel and the creation of his tour in the mid-twentieth century, and additionally, the designation of the neighborhood as historic, that is credited with building it back up to what it is today. Some parts have been somewhat restored, but much of it is original, apparent in the unevenness of the floors and the large amount of debris from age and earthquakes still strewn about.
Our tour guide pointed out to us that locals never take this tour unless they have family visiting, which seemed to be pretty accurate given that we took this with John’s family in his brother’s new home city! However, whether a resident or a visitor, it is an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half and certainly gives you a new appreciation for what the city of Seattle is today.