Seattle Underground

July 10, 2009 — At some point in our history it became customary when visiting a city, to ascend its signature tall thing. I throw my blame for this at King Kong. Regardless, in Seattle, WA, that tall thing is the Space Needle, from whose saucer summit you can delight in views of the city skyline, Mount Rainier, Elliott Bay, and the apartment of Frasier Crane.

However, Seattle’s tourist Gulf Stream also flows in a downward direction. Beneath its more historic streets lie the ruins of an older incarnation of Seattle, a dark, forbidden place where rivers of pink slime flow, Morlocks roam, and journeys to the center of the Earth start. Or, more accurately, where you can see a unique stratum of Seattle history.

In 1889, Seattle pretty much burnt to the ground due to a small mishap with a hot glue pot and a propensity for wooden building materials. In rebuilding the city (of stone this time), the community leaders decided to kill two birds with that stone and raise the level of the city a story or two to get it out of the tidal flat muck that was its original foundation.

However, business owners, not wanting to lose any more money than they already had, re-built their places of trade faster than Seattle could re-grade its streets. As a result, the first floors of each of these buildings ended up being below street level. It was a pretty awkward day in Seattle history.

They “remedied” this situation by installing skylights in the sidewalks and leaning a few ladders against walls for street access, meaning crossing between shops on opposite sides of the street was a lot harder than it should have been in that pre-automobile traffic era and demanded the deft footing of a roofer. Eventually, though, this accidental subway system was condemned in 1907 due to the bubonic plague-carrying rats who shared the tunnels with the shoppers. General embarrassment was also a factor, I’m sure.

That’s the short and vague of it, at least. The architectural nuances of the story are a bit lost on me, even after personally walking through those buried streets. I have trouble thinking spatially, and my knowledge of construction extends only as far as being able to spell the word caulk correctly 50% of the time.

Eventually, preservationists were able fix up the surrounding area and open that abandoned underground city for  some touring. Dubbed Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour in honor of its founder and local historian, the tour starts at what’s known as Doc Maynard’s Public House, an above-ground restored 1890s saloon located in Pioneer Square, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood.

If the crowd of people clustered around the ticket desk when we arrived is any evidence beyond anecdotal, the tour must be pretty popular. We had ordered our tickets in advance, though, and were immediately directed to join a group large enough to make us wonder how we were all going to fit anywhere underground.

We were instructed to seat ourselves in the saloon while a guide gave us an overly long but surprisingly entertaining introduction to some of the history of Seattle, Pioneer Square, and the underground area itself. We were then broken into more bite-sized groups and assigned a new tour guide, who had our group assemble beneath a large totem pole nearby, the history of which he then recounted to us. I believe the story went that it was a replica of an original that was drunkenly stolen at some point in Seattle’s history from a neighboring tribe of Native Americans. I think that’s the story, anyway. It was kind of hard to pay attention because the only thing more unsettling to me than being part of a tour group is being part of a tour group on a bustling street.

From there, we were taken to what looked like a purple-tiled mosaic in the middle of a sidewalk. Turns out that mosaic was actually one of those aforementioned sidewalk skylights, the glass of which had gone opaque with age. The tour guide then led us to an inconspicuous-looking entrance in a row of buildings. An unlocked door and a set of stairs later, we were underground.

Underground Seattle isn’t so much like being in an underground city so much as it’s like being in a dirty basement, which is pretty much what it is. A series of them, actually, strung together and connected by boardwalks with wooden handrails. The tunnel winds through stone archways into what I guess should be the usable bottom floors of the current above-world buildings, but which are just abandoned rooms these days. The segments that we explored in our urban spelunking were wired for electricity, and as you meander along with the tour guide, it’s difficult to tell exactly when you’ve entered a building and when you’re in what was supposed to be the outside before the entire place was turned outside in.

Concrete detritus, old city pipes, broken furniture, storefront signs in bygone fonts, and other assorted bits of rubble fill many of the rooms and empty spaces. Some of the building walls are labeled for what they were at one time, a hotel, a bank, and beneath the boardwalk could often be seen the shattered remains of the original sidewalk. Around us, nice brickwork and various masonry details belie the fact that these walls were never meant to be mere derelict cellars.

A highlight of the trip was the underside of the so far thrice-mentioned skylights. Highlight is a pun there, I guess. The light filtering through the thick, purple, cobwebbed glass gave the tunnel an unearthly cast, which was further facilitated by the tour guide turning off the lights. Every once in a while a shadow briefly darkened the skylight as Seattlites went about their normal orbits.

As we wandered through the tunnels, the tour guide pointed out various features including a bank teller window, an old commode, and other recognizable items that betrayed that this really was once everyday Seattle. We surfaced and submerged two or three times into other stretches of underground, exiting in alleys and entering through other innocuous and unlabeled entryways.

Despite having a Google toolbar in my browser, I’m not sure how far the underground actually extends. Our tour only went through a few blocks worth of subterranean real estate before finally leaving the underground for the last time. I’d like to think the entire city is warren’d with tunnels, but I’d also like to think that of the entire planet. Something should always be under us, no matter where we are.

After being led back into daylight, we were led on to a museum and gift shop back where we started near Doc Maynard’s. My wife and I skipped this last part, though, surreptitiously melting into the surrounding crowds on the street, because we still had a bridge troll and a rock legend to go see before we left the area.

Now, not to go all generic ending on you, but underground Seattle is definitely a fascinating place and worth burrowing through. I mean, sure, as is often the case, the idea of it is cooler than the actual of it, and, as always, I’d like to have experienced it without a tour group hemming me in and forcing me to look in socially weird directions to avoid eye contact, but that’s what I get for having interests that align with too many people.

You guys are cool, though.