Seattle was originally built on tide flats. As the city grew, this caused enormous problems with sewage. Thomas Crapper's marvelous invention, the flush toilet, only made things worse, because if you sat on your toilet at high tide, there was a large chance that sewage might suddenly come geysering out of it, forced back up by incoming water in inadequate pipes. Newspapers took to printing tide schedules. Eventually, as the city grew, the decision was made to raise it. The entire city. This was done in stages, which involved filling in the areas between streets with mud and building new streets on top of the old ones -- which made the old ones a series of underground tunnels used to access what had been the first floor of shops and residences. This all occurred in the late 1800's, as I learned yesterday on the enormously entertaining tour of Underground Seattle.
For a while this worked fine. Then, in 1907, Seattle was hit with bubonic plague. The tunnels were full of rats and so the city leaders closed them. Everyone went above ground (including the rats), and first floors became cellars. The tunnels remained closed for nearly 60 years, until 1965, when they were opened for historic tours. Here is what once was a thriving underground shopping street:
Since Seattle was a starting city for gold prospectors heading to the Klondike, the tunnels operated banks 24/7. A sign still remains from that period:
I can't recommend this tour highly enough. It's full of stories and wit. At one point in the gold-rush days Seattle had a population of 25,000 -- ten percent of which were unmarried women living in a three-block area, every one of which listed her occupation during a city census as "seamstress." An enterprising madam organized these "seamstresses" for everyone's safety and convenience and told the city fathers, "Don't harass them. Tax them!" They did. It was a great boost to municipal economy, and Madame Lou Graham is now an historical hero, of sorts.
If you go to Seattle, take the underground tour!