February 22, 2007
by Skip Schiel
© All text copyright Skip Schiel, 2007
When living in Seattle 1962-65 I began hearing about Underground Seattle, that region of the city downtown near Pioneer Square that had been built upon. I visited parts of it with a young man, Bob, the son of a friend. And either we'd actually tied a cord to ourselves so we could find our way out or I thought about doing this. We heard rumors, maybe bona fide stories about a skeleton found strapped to a chair in the underground city that might have been from the Chinese gambling den days. This was all very mysterious and intriguing, but I never understood exactly how the construction had happened. So on this trip I had the opportunity to join a guided tour.
Beginning in Pioneer Square, now partially inhabited by many homeless people, we descended several times to various sections of the Underground. And the story is now clearer, going like this: Seattle suffered a major fire in 1889, burning most of downtown. The merchants wanted to immediately rebuild. The municipality wished to rebuild more slowly, more thoughtfully, to elevate the street levels above the mud--downtown was near the ocean--and to reconstruct the faulty sewage system. It had been so bad that flushing would frequently spew sewage up from the pipes.
So this inherent conflict between private and pubic resulted in 2 simultaneous building schemes: merchants rebuilding on the ruins of their destroyed buildings, and the city bringing in clay from upper regions to raise the street level. Eventually streets were between 8 and 15 ft taller than the newly built buildings. Later the city constructed sidewalks using beams and arches, thus the streets were on average one story higher than the buildings.
At first merchants welcomed this innovation, thinking they'd be able to sell from 2 levels, and this worked well during the boom period of the Klondike gold rush, roughly 1893-4, but then ended. By 1907, the vermin ware so bad that the city closed access to the lower levels.
One man, Bill Speidel, discovered all this in the 1960s while I was residing in Seattle. And now I have at least part of the story filled in, so to speak.
Seattle Undergound according to Wikipedia