Every great city starts somewhere. And make no mistake; Seattle is a great city. There is a reason so many lovers of culture, of the outdoors, or just of a good life with a great cup of coffee (not Starbucks) come here to visit or to live. But it had to start somewhere. And it turns out that this spot is where Seattle began.
Pioneer Square is known as a neighborhood of downtown Seattle that is a bit rough. It has a larger homeless population than other areas. But on a beautiful Thursday morning, it is peaceful and beautiful. Locals buzz through numerous coffee shops – I get my caffeine fix from Cherry Street Coffee, along with a fabulous walnut coffee cake that puts a good cup of coffee to shame – on their way to work in the modern glass skyscrapers going up at a furious clip here in the city core. Others take advantage of the square itself – actually a triangle – and the beautiful pergola to sit in the shade. I wander.
Pioneer Square is the best place to view the architectural styles of Seattle. You have the early three or four story buildings from the city’s rebuild after a catastrophic 1889 fire. You have modern construction, highlighted by the public library building. And you have what I call “ferry building modern,” a style seen in the Smith Tower and the train station, where a central tower with a pyramid top accentuates a larger and more blocky building, reminiscent of the San Francisco ferry building. (Fun fact: the pyramid at the top of the Smith Tower is actually a private residence, renting for around $13,000 per month, and has a view into the football stadium and of the entire field just south.)
What many visitors to this original part of Seattle don’t realize is that they are actually walking above what was once the city. Beneath their feet is a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that mark where the city used to begin. To see this subterranean world, I sign up for a tour with Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour, one of a couple companies doing such things, but the original. Bill himself was the leader of the movement preserving Pioneer Square, and its underground city.
So what is the underground city? My tour guide, Monica, walks us back in time.
Seattle is named for Chief Seattle, a leader of the Suquamish people when the first white pioneers of the city arrived here with land grants given them by the United States. In 1852, Arthur Denny and Doc Maynard started a settlement along Elliot Bay, an indentation of Puget Sound. At that time, fur trapping and logging were the major industries in the area. Henry Yesler brought the first sawmill to the region, and placed it where Denny and Maynard’s land grants met.
During the early years, the city was basically a mud flat, subject to flooding during high tides. Sawdust from the mill was used to dry out the streets, but with next to no success. A visiting writer once said the city streets were like intersecting rivers of oatmeal. Homes were built on the neighboring bluff, and reaching the city center required navigating a 40% grade and then the regular flooding and mud. To put it mildly, early Seattle doesn’t sound like a great place.
On June 6, 1889, a fire at a glue factory ignited a blaze that destroyed the entire city other than the residential areas on the bluff. While devastating (although no lives were lost), this gave Seattle the opportunity to rebuild. It was decided to take some of the rock and soil from the bluffs and raise downtown up out of the tidal flats, and also lessen the grade reaching those heights. However, to do so would take years, and businesses didn’t want to wait that long. So a compromise was reached. The businesses would rebuild immediately, but their bottom floors would end up underground when the “new” city was built upwards. So that’s what happened. As the street level rose up, bottom story entrances became connected to the streets by ladders. And ultimately, in 1903, the underground was sealed beneath the sidewalks.
Skylights were constructed into the sidewalks, thick glass that doesn’t allow sound to penetrate – and from below all one can see are shadows walking overhead – and for four years the underground “city” was a bustling place of business, connecting entire blocks beneath the streets. In 1907, the area was sealed off due to plague concerns from the rats, and it didn’t reopen until 1965.
Today, the Seattle underground city is only reachable via tour. Different companies have different portions they oversee, and keys to locked stairways taking visitors down below Pioneer Square. My tour visits a few different areas: a marketplace, a bank, a bar. It is an eerie feeling, but one helped by Monica’s fantastic storytelling, narrating the areas we visit and bringing these early days of Seattle to life.
One of my favorite stories is in response to a question about how the city could afford to rebuild after the fire. Monica tells us that the city implemented a “sin tax,” taxing gambling, alcohol, and sewing. Sewing? In its early days, Seattle had about a 25-1 men to women ratio, and many of those women listed their occupations as seamstresses, though they didn’t sew a single stitch. (Yes, prostitution was a big industry here.) So sewing was also regulated and taxed, with the average “seamstress” working two years and then marrying, becoming the early elite of the city.
As our tour exits the underground city for the final time, returning to the sun of Pioneer Square, I gaze down at one of the skylights, which from above just looks like some purple tiles. I wonder what it would have been like to live in early Seattle, to wade through the mud and muck, to climb up and down the bluffs. I don’t think I would have liked it much. (The city’s 18% grades today are steep enough.)
Every great city has a beginning. To experience Seattle’s start, you must visit Pioneer Square – both from street level and from below.
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