Ok, Pennsylvania is not considered the “far east”, but from Seattle it is “far to the east”. Nevertheless, our daughter, Jessica, arrived at a very busy Sea-Tac Airport on Friday morning after a direct flight from Baltimore.
Once she arrived, we headed for downtown Seattle to play tourist. After a long search for a parking place, we walked to Pioneer Square to take Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Speidel was a columnist for The Seattle Times and a self-made historian who wrote a couple of books about the people who settled and built Seattle. In 1964, Speidel received and printed a letter from a reader asking about the underground areas of Pioneer Square. He replied via the paper that he did not know much about it, but that he would research it and get back to her. Once he did the research, he printed a response telling her to meet him at 3 p.m. the next Saturday in Pioneer Square, and he would take her on a tour of the underground and what he had found. The reader did show up, along with 500 other people. Speidel quickly took up a collection of $1 from each of the visitors and proceeded on the first tour of the Seattle Underground. Since then, the Underground Tour has given several tours a day every day except holidays and is one of the city’s best known tourist attractions.
OK, so what is the Seattle Underground? On June 6, 1889, the Great Seattle Fire destroyed 31 blocks of the city. While a destructive fire was not unusual for the time, the response of the city leaders was. Instead of rebuilding the city as it was before, they made two strategic decisions: that all new buildings must be of stone or brick, insurance against a similar disaster in the future; and to regrade the streets one to two stories higher than the original street grade. Pioneer Square had originally been built mostly on filled-in tidelands and, as a consequence, it often flooded. The new street level also assisted in ensuring that gravity-assisted flush toilets that funnelled into the nearby bay did not back up at high tide.
For the regrade, the streets were lined with concrete walls that formed narrow alleyways between the walls and the buildings on both sides of the street, with a wide “alley” where the street was. The naturally steep hillsides were used, and through a series of sluices, material was washed into the wide “alleys”, raising the streets to the desired new level, generally 12 feet higher than before, in some places nearly 30 feet. At first pedestrians climbed ladders to go between street level and the sidewalks in front of the building entrances. Brick archways, as seen in an image below, were later constructed next to the road surface, above the submerged sidewalks and new sidewalks were constructed at the raised street level. Skylights with small panes of clear glass were installed, creating the area now called the Seattle Underground.
Once the new sidewalks were complete, building owners moved their businesses to the new ground floor, although some merchants carried on business in the lowest floors of buildings that survived the fire, and pedestrians continued to use the underground sidewalks lit by the glass prisms (still seen on some streets) embedded in the grade-level sidewalk above.
In 1907 the city condemned the Underground for fear of bubonic plague, two years before the 1909 World Fair in Seattle. The basements were left to deteriorate or were used as storage. Some became illegal flophouses for the homeless, gambling halls, speakeasies, and opium dens. The Underground was left deserted until Speidel’s efforts in the ’60s. Only a small portion of the Seattle Underground has been restored and made safe and accessible to the public on guided tours.
The concrete floor of the former meat market shown below was originally at the level of the wooden platform on the left, but sank over time because of decomposing sawdust fill under it.
The tour is described as a mixture of humor and history – just what we like. But, as it turns out, it was a very disappointing tour. The first part of the tour is an introductory session in an old tavern next to the tour headquarters. The presenter was very funny, but her “monologue” didn’t have much to do with the tour. The large group was then divided into smaller groups with a guide. Our guide turned out to be the presenter from the introductory session. She carried a covered Styrofoam coffee cup, but we don’t think it contained coffee, as she acted as if she was drunk. While she did have some great jokes, the “humor” was non-stop and she seemed a bit upset that the group didn’t laugh at everything. Many of her stories rambled on with no real point. When the tour ended (mercifully), we went in and informed a man who seemed to be in charge how unhappy we were with the tour. He was nice to us but we don’t think he was too concerned, as the line to buy tickets is always very long.
After our tour we headed to Pike Place Market to buy some fresh fish for dinner. We’ll have more on Pike Place in our next blog, but it is home to some of the freshest fish you can find.
After purchasing seafood for dinner, we headed back to the motorhome for a crab-fest and to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Two of us were energetic enough to deal with our crabs by ourselves but someone doesn’t like to do that so he had to have someone else pick out the crab meat.
There are many things to do and see here so there will be more on Seattle in our next blog, so stay tuned . . .