Seattle’s Hidden City

Imagine this: you’re working in a basement cabinet shop. It’s hot and far enough after lunch that you’re contemplating a nap. Or thinking about that after-work beer. Or whatever.  Then your boss and a few other people come in and distract you. And you forget that you have a highly flammable substance heating on the stove on the other side of the room – which consequently bursts into flames. What do you do? You grab the bucket of water in the corner and throw it on there intending to save the day……then you wake up? Nope. This is the actual history of how the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 started and how it, and 76 years later a man named Bill Speidel, changed our city forever.

The day after the Great Seattle Fire

A Wooden City Burnt to the Ground

The fire that stared that afternoon in a basement cabinet shop on the corner of 1st and Madison ended up burning down 29 square blocks of mostly wooden buildings which made up the business district, 10 brick buildings, most of the wharves, and the railroad station. How no one was killed (well, besides an estimated million rats) is a mystery to this day. Ok, you just burnt down (literally) your city. What do you do? That guy left town. What the city decided to do was to rebuild, which wasn’t unusual for the time especially since city-destroying fires weren’t terribly unusual for the time. But Seattleites have always been the type to look to the future and decided that wooden streets and building build on mostly fill right next to the water were for cities of the past – and we were looking to become the biggest and best city around. Besides, what good is it to have a city where you have to walk around in the muck and mud all the time?

A drawing of how the ‘new’ city looked after the rebuild.

The Underground City is Born

The city made a new law – all new buildings must be made of brick or concrete. Up above the mud that reportedly could swallow up dogs and small children. So, the city engineers decided that building tall retaining walls (8 feet or higher) on either side of the street, filling them in, and covering them with new streets and sidewalks was the way to go. What they didn’t count on was that local businessmen wouldn’t want to wait for the new city to be built to capitalize on the recent economic boom. They quickly rebuilt on the old, muddy streets not really caring that their storefronts and windows would eventually be basements. It was back to business as usual, with the exception of the walls going up all around. As the city was built, people used ladders to get from the old streets below to the stores and buildings a story above. When the sidewalks went in above, the businesses were simply abandoned, and left unforgotten until the late 1960’s when a man named Bill Speidel decided to try and save the deteriorated Pioneer Square from years of crime, poverty, and neglect. (Interesting side note: in 1907 the city condemned the underground – which was used as storage for the businesses above, and several illegal flop-houses offering prostitution, gambling, and opium dens. The official reason was that they were worried about the bubonic plague effecting the upcoming World’s Fair.)

One of the many passageways on the Underground Tour

Underground City? That’s Just a Rumor…..

Most people living in and around Seattle in the 1950’s didn’t even know about the city under their feet. Enter Bill and his wife Shirley. Bill was an ex-newspaper journalist turned publicist and both he and his wife wanted to help clean up the birthplace of their city, so he started doing some research. Those early interviews and trips to the newspaper archives lead to an unusual discovery; the rumors about a city beneath the city were actually true! A few carefully worded letters from Bill to The Seattle Times lead to a column mentioning the underground city which led to over 300 letters and tons of phone calls to the Times wanting to know when tours of this ‘new’ city were happening. That led to Speidel leading the march to designate Pioneer Square as a Historic Landmark and saving it from destruction by rich men uninterested in history yielding wrecking balls.

Today’s Underground Tours

In 1965 Speidel founded The Underground Tour, which lives on today. It’s an amazing trip back in time for both locals and tourists alike. There is lots of history, and every single tour guide, at least the dozen or so times I’ve personally taken the different tours they offer they have been, and there is a fun shopping area at the end where you can buy the usual touristy stuff but also books and movies about the history of our great city. There are three tours: the original Underground Tour, the newer Underground Paranormal Experience, which is a ghost tour with a few fun twists, and the latest offering The Underworld Tour, which is aptly titled “Sin & Flimflam in Seattle’s Old Red-light District”. I think that speaks for itself….

Now, I’m not an expert on underground cities or how the ‘facts’ are verified. Nor have I done more than casual research on the stories presented on the tour. But I can tell you this: if you enjoy history presented in a fun way, especially a way that involves adult beverages in spooky, dark areas then this is the tour for you. If you want to do your own research, there are some great places that have extensive archives that you can peruse at your leisure. The Museum of History and Industry and the Seattle Public Library Archives are great places that are open to the public. If you know a guy, the University of Washington has some pretty cool stuff too. Me? I’ll stick with the born story-teller handing me a beer. (During the day tours don’t involve adult beverages, the kiddos are more than welcome to walk the dusty areas with their adults.)

Book a Seattle Getaway Today

After a day of exploring the underworld of Seattle, come home to an amazing property with a view – and no dirt or mud!  Let the professionals at Seattle Oasis Vacation Rentals help you settle into a gorgeous downtown property that keeps you close to the heart of the city while providing the privacy and luxury you deserve. Contact us today for details on how to book your next Seattle home away from home.

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