Friday, May 18, 2012

Seattle's Underground

Seattle has an intriguing underground that a good deal of people don't know about. If you are a lover of the old Kolchak the Night Stalker TV series, you might have seen the 1973 movie "The Night Strangler" that focused on a fictitious version of the Seattle underground. It was very creepy and stuck with me long after seeing it.

Wikipedia: Seattle's first buildings were wooden. On June 6, 1889 at 2:39 in the afternoon,[1] a cabinetmaker accidentally overturned and ignited a glue pot. An attempt to extinguish it with water spread the burning grease-based glue. The fire chief was out of town, and although the volunteer fire department responded they made the mistake of trying to use too many hoses at once. They never recovered from the subsequent drop in water pressure, and the Great Seattle Fire destroyed 31 blocks.[2] 

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 Elliott 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 the image to the left, were constructed next to the road surface, above the submerged sidewalks. Skylights with small panes of clear glass (which later became amethyst-colored because of manganese in the glass) were installed, creating the area now called the Seattle Underground.When they reconstructed their buildings, merchants and landlords knew that the ground floor would eventually be underground and the next floor up would be the new ground floor, so there is very little decoration on the doors and windows of the original ground floor, but extensive decoration on the new ground floor. 

Once the new sidewalks were complete, building owners moved their businesses to the new ground floor, although 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 (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition). 

The basements were left to deteriorate or were used as storage. Some became illegal flophouses for the homeless, gambling halls, speakeasies, and opium dens. Only a small portion of the Seattle Underground has been restored and made safe and accessible to the public on guided tours.


(BTW in the video above, is it just me, or does this seem like Ranae Holland from "Finding Bigfoot?")

Today, Bill Speidel's does a great underground tour and worthy of your consideration if you're in the Seattle area.

As an urban explorer, I have it on my to-do list for sure!


  1. Yeah, that chick did remind me of Ranae too. This place has just been put on my bucket list. If I am ever in Seattle, I am taking the tour.

  2. What an awesome place for a photo op! Going to have to add that to my places to go list! Oh, and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Kolchak! Netflix allows you to watch it immediately. Just sayin'!

    Bandhura (Tara)