Underground tour shines torch on Seattle’s buried city

Frontier tales of gambling, girls and gin 

We were passing through Seattle’s airport to San Francisco recently and I was reminded of the last time we visited this port city in 2010. After an obligatory walk through the crowded and colourful Pike Market, I lined up to take a 90-minute walking tour of Seattle’s original city, buried several blocks away beneath the streets of Pioneer Square.

The Underground Tour has been shining a humorous torch on the dark and seamy underbelly of this 1852 city for 47 years. Beneath this historic square, tour groups chortle over tales about this boisterous and disorderly frontier town as they roam the uneven surfaces of buried streets and storefronts.

The tour begins with an introduction to the city’s three founding fathers, credited with turning the muddy tide-flats and treed cliffs above the deep water harbor of Elliott Bay into a soggy logging town. After hearing about the sewage problems, I’m not surprised they were called the feuding fathers.

Twice a day, lumbermen dodged raw sewage when the tide-water flooded the streets of their new timber town. Plumbing was also an issue for a city built at sea level without a sewage system. And when the city’s first toilets arrived, the tide turned them into indoor water fountains twice a day.

Tour guides say town planners quietly rejoiced at the opportunity to rebuild their city one storey above the sea when 30 blocks burned down in 12 hours during the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.

Back then, if you stood outside the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory on the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way, you could see huge logs being skidded down Yesler Way on greased logs to the waterfront sawmill at the foot of First Avenue. It was here the logging term Skid Road originated, although the area would take on the Skid Row meaning after the Gold Rush of 1897.

Hanging along the cool damp walls of musty smelling, dimly-lit passages were blown-up black and white photographs of historic Seattle; the grainy pictures in stark contrast to the guide’s colourful tales of gambling, girls and gin. The stories ranged from kinda corny and sorta raunchy to the hilarious geyser toilets. The guides clearly enjoyed making history fun. Or were they making fun of history?

The tour ends at the chocolate shop. This corner building used to be a bank, and the remains of a teller cage sign and the bank vault door are just eight feet below, under sea level. Rumour has it a murdered teller still haunts the building.


© 2012 df30

5 thoughts on “Underground tour shines torch on Seattle’s buried city

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