Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Underground Seattle

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!


Oz said...

Glad to hear the underground tour hasn't changed in the past 30 years. Though I honestly think it looks as if things have been cleaned up a bit. I loved the idea of the ladders up to the streets. But the best story is the one about the tides, isn't it?

Bryan H. Bell said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the tour. It's always high on my list of places to go when I have out-of-town visitors. Was it my comment on your 09/19 entry that pointed you in that direction, or was the tour already on your list?

Nancy Kress said...

Both! I sort of knew about it, but you reminded me.

Dave Creek said...

Nancy, my family and I visited Seattle in 2005. It was a marvelous city, so different from our part of the country (Kentucky).

I loved the ocean and mountains (we went down to Mount St. Helens) and, of course the Experience Music Project and SF Museum.

You're lucky to be able to enjoy all those any day you wish!

Jeff P said...

Takes me back to the 70s ABC-TV movie 'The Night Strangler', sequel to 'The Night Stalker'. In it, Carl Kolchak chases a mysterious killer through subterranean Seattle.

Tom said...

Hi Nancy,

We have just completed a post about Seattle's Underground Tour and we hope that you'll have a look at it. If it's interesting enough, do spread it for your readers to know about the fun things that they can expect in Seattle

For more posts about our visit to Seattle, visit

Thank you and have an awesome weekend ahead!

Tom Lim

Founder and Travel Blogger of

Singapore's Top (few) Travel Blogs

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