Seattle is best known for the Space Needle, which offers breath-taking views of the city. However, beneath the sidewalks and city of Seattle, another world exists – a city which was burnt down, then rebuilt on top of itself.
It is the world of the pioneers, the original settlers of Seattle. The subterranean passageways under the city show the unknown history of Seattle. Above ground, Seattle is a thriving metropolis, a modern city, the gateway to Alaska. But it hasn’t always been this way.
Seattle was first settled in 1851, and incorporated in 1865, which makes it relatively modern in America’s history. The streets were at sea level, which meant that the city often flooded, and this caused damage to the main streets. Potholes in the roads were huge, and citizens sometimes drowned in them.
They did this by building high retaining walls along the streets, and filling them in with the rubble from the fire. Therefore, the streets were high above the sidewalks and building entrances. Simple matters like walking from one side of the street to another became a little more complex. One had to walk to the intersection, climb a ladder (up to six metres) to street level, cross the road, then climb down a ladder to the sidewalk on the other side of the street. The storefronts were still at sidewalk level, and street level was at the buildings second level, or higher.
Seattle Underground Oriental Hotel
Eventually, the sidewalks were built over, so they became level with the streets. The buildings upper levels became the new entrances from the raised sidewalks, with the old sidewalks and old entrances still below ground, and forgotten for many decades.
In the early 1960’s, Seattle City began a program of demolishing all the old buildings in Seattle’s downtown area, the area that contained the now forgotten “underground city”. One man, Bill Speidel, decided to collect signatures to preserve these historical buildings. He did this by conducting tours of Seattle’s underground, to show the significance of the buildings to Seattle’s history. These tours eventually became so popular that Speidel turned them into a full time career.
The tour offers fascinating insight into a previously forgotten world. There is the teller’s cage, supposedly still haunted by the ghost of the teller who bought the gold from miners returning from Alaska. This was featured in 2007 on the American TV show Ghost Hunters.
Seattle Underground Bar From Night Strangler
There is the old Oriental Hotel entrance, underneath the Oriental Hotel building which is still directly above it. This was one of the many buildings saved by Bill Speidel’s underground tours.
The underground has also featured in movies and TV shows. The TV series Frasier regularly features the main character and his brother Niles meeting in a coffee shop in the restored underground, a part that is now openly accessible to the general public. An episode of the TV show Scooby-Doo also featured the Seattle underground. Most famous of all, though, was the TV movie The Night Strangler, starring Darren McGavin, where the underground was the major setting. The bar and other areas used in this movie are featured in the tour.
The underground creates a sense of surrealism. When walking around on the sidewalks above, one barely notices the glass windows in the concrete below one’s feet. Yet, after descending from the noise of the city, those same windows are now in the ceiling, allowing light into the eerily quiet subterranean caverns.
The tour guides regale with tales of a time long gone. The tourists faces are struck with awe, as accounts of the city’s past are revealed. A special night time tour, for adults only, even addresses the cities seedy past. It talks about the role prostitution and corruption played in securing the city’s sound financial position, prior to the great fire.
One story even discusses the problems with the then newly invented flush toilet, prior to 1889. As the outlet pipes were at (or below) sea level, it was usual that sewerage would “wash back” through the sewerage pipes during high tide. This would result in spectacular fountains of sewerage being forced back out the toilet bowl. Apparently, even closing the toilet lid would not stop these mini geysers, which reportedly went as high as six metres. The rebuilding of the city at an artificially higher level has, thankfully, remedied this problem.
Today, the tours are operated by Bill Speidel’s daughter, and employ a number of specialist guides. Last year, over 200,000 people took the tour through Seattle’s underground. NorthWest Airlines fly to Seattle.
Apart from being entertaining and informative, the underground also provides an opportunity for the traveller to reflect on a time long past, and what the future will bring for a city which literally rose out of its own ashes.
Other articles featuring Seattle:
Seattle USA – Space Needle
Seattle – Underground Homeless