The story of Seattle’s ascent out of the tidal flats of Puget Sound is a tad bawdy -- with tales of vice and 2,500 of the city’s women whose registered occupation was “seamstress” -- but most of all it’s about bad plumbing and engineering ingenuity.
“You’ve just walked through a second-floor window,” Tug, our tour guide, tells the group. It’s July, and like all good tourists, we’re partaking of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour of old Seattle. Tug was obviously delusional -- I know I had stepped through a doorway, from the street. And so began a 90-minute, three-block, mostly subterranean trip through the underground in the Pioneer Square Historic District. Pointing to a period photo on the wall, Tug highlighted where our entryway once was on the second floor, and then we followed him down a flight of stairs to a stone wall-lined “basement” filled with old fixtures and furniture.
Tug never missed a step in his upbeat sing-song, calling out as he led us on: “Welcome to ground level. Back in the early 1890s, these spaces were shops and offices, and there was a busy street just past that wall.”
Suspend belief, but a bit of history helped the process.
After its founding in the mid-1800s, Seattle gained an increasing toehold in the muck that rimmed Elliott Bay. Because Puget Sound is tidal, the location wasn’t ideal. The bay-side setting and twice-a-day ebb-and-flow cycles caused flooding and, in an oft-repeated refrain on these tours, problems for the increasingly popular water closet. The city, busily booming, didn’t have time to worry about mundane matters such as up-surging toilets and wet feet and buildings.
Then in the summer of 1889, Seattle, built of lumber, burned to the ground. Out of the ashes the city mandated new building standards, including the use of fire-resistant stone and brick. It quickly rose again, with one problem addressed and two others ignored.
“In order to solve Seattle’s continuing tide and draining pro- blems,” Tug said, “engineers came up with an extraordinary if unorthodox plan: ‘We’re going to raise the streets.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”
Going underground for a second time, to what I assumed was another basement, we listened to the unfolding tale of seawater and regurgitating toilets bested by American know-how.
“Beneath your feet is the old sidewalk, and right here folks, this is a retaining wall built of stone, not a building exterior. This one is 4 feet thick and 12 feet tall, and there’s another one just like it that runs parallel to it on the other side of the street. That up there,” Tug says, gesturing upward, “that’s the underside of the ‘new’ sidewalk.”
Throughout the 1890s, the city embarked on a 30-plus-block pro- ject to raise streets between the existing buildings by constructing retaining walls and backfilling with terra firma. As it happened, the city ran out of money after the streets were built but before the new sidewalks could be constructed at the same grade. It’s hard to fathom, but for a time if you wanted to cross the street you’d exit a building by the usual door, step out into the sunshine on the sidewalk and be greeted by a soaring retaining wall on which the new street rested. You’d walk down to the corner, climb up a ladder, cross the street and climb down another ladder -- and some of these ladders were 35 feet tall. With the pattern of existing building, sunken sidewalk, raised street, sunken sidewalk and existing building on the other side -- Seattle resembled a “giant lopsided waffle,” Tug said.
“So where do the hookers fit in?” inquires one of our group , recalling a part of the story teased during the tour orientation.
Tug tells us about an occupational census that turned up a large population of “seamstresses” who didn’t sew much, though the boarding houses where they lived sported red lights. The local taxman -- not eager to extract wages from big, strong lumbermen, the No. 1 employment sector in town -- decided to tax the women and all gambling tables. Sin was in, as the Seattle “entertainment tax” accounted for nearly 90% of city revenue over a nine-year period.
Flush with cash, the city set about building new at-grade sidewalks for the recently raised streets. I-beams and arches were stretched from the building exteriors to the retaining walls, then were capped to create the sidewalks, leaving open spaces below. Commerce and foot traffic continued for a few years within the subterranean passageways and lower-floors-turned-basements, until a plague scare caused them to be abandoned in 1907. Liquor smuggling brought some activity during Prohibition, but the underground again disappeared from sight until the ‘60s, when the late Bill Speidel started leading tours of the area.
It’s said that more earth was moved to fill and raise the area around Pioneer Square and the neighboring International District than was gouged out of the isthmus to make the Panama Canal. Extraordinary and unorthodox, Seattle arose from the muck.
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO SEATTLE
From LAX, nonstop service to Seattle is offered on Alaska, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Delta, United, US Airways, American, Alaska and Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $248.
Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, 608 1st Ave.; (206) 682-4646, www.undergroundtour.com. Tours are offered daily. Tickets are $16 for adults, $13 for students and $8 for children ages 7-12. May be bought in advance online. Participants should be able to handle stairs and traverse sometimes uneven ground. Mild potty humor abounds.