Stuck in Seattle? Go Underground

Guest post by Sarah Kohl

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a conference secretly longing to get outside and explore? I was in that exact restless state on a recent trip to Seattle. That is when my friend, a native, suggested I go underground.

No, not the musical underground made famous by groups such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, the other underground…an abandoned cityscape just beneath the sidewalks of old downtown.

I had never heard of this.

Now being on the curious side I frequently explore catacombs and caves. But I had never seen anything like this: a ghost town under the city but in plain view.

What were the clues?

Small purple squares of glass in all the sidewalks. And large basement access stairs along the corners of the buildings instead of the usual metal door in a sidewalk. I also noticed a curious lack of wooden buildings despite Seattle having been started as a lumber town.

Entrance to Seattle Underground

Entrance to Seattle Underground

So I walked over to Pioneer Square, in the heart of the tourist section. It was only just a short jaunt from my conference center where I found a tour company happy to fill in the gaps.

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Our tour guide was part comedian, part historian and played to the audience. I truly enjoyed learning how Seattle transformed from a rough and tumble frontier town into the metropolis of today.

Before Seattle was home to coffee, grunge music and all things tech it was a logging town populated by lumberjacks, merchants, and ‘enterprising’ women. The original city was built on the tidal flats.

Seattle, Washington tide flats 1902

Seattle, Washington tide flats 1902

The story is told that the residents got tired of the indoor plumbing flooding with each incoming tide. This tidbit, naturally, gave our tour guide ample material for embellishment with humorous effect.

Indoor plumbing

Indoor plumbing

A devastating fire presented the city an opportunity to rebuild and raise the city above the tides. But, like most city projects, it took longer than the merchants were willing to wait. So they rebuilt hotels, banks, and stores back on the tidal flats, while the city took a decade to build cement and brick walls for the new city.

Underground Facade

Underground Facade

These new walls created alleys with the streets running down the middle of each and required ladders to get in an out of each street. Eventually people got tired of climbing down into the streets by ladder so sidewalks were laid level with the second floor of the newly rebuilt buildings.

Since the main entrance to the buildings were still located below the new sidewalks skylights were installed -which you see today as clusters of glass squares embedded in the city sidewalks.

Skylight

Skylight

Along comes prohibition and the concrete and brick underground alleys become part of a lively and dangerous scene. Eventually they fell into disrepair becoming the place where old things were tossed as they wore out.

Abandoned settee

Abandoned settee

Today you can go in and out of the tunnels, look at the old stuff but mostly you get a running narration of early Seattle history. Your will see the brick and concrete walls holding up modern Seattle, smell the damp passages, and see old ‘stuff’ discarded by previous inhabitants along with signs from night clubs and banks.

Sams sign

Sams sign

There are many displays with photos from Seattle’s early days. It is fascinating to realize that the frontier town seen in the photos is only 150 years older than the glass and skyscraper city of today.

Going underground is a pleasant way to spend a few hours and gives you a new perspective when you are walking, and eating, and shopping above ground. It’s a bit odd to realize you are standing on top of an older city, the remains of which are found in the basements of today’s buildings.

About the author: Sarah Kohl was practically born with a suitcase in her hand. She is a doctor trained in travel medicine and loves to share tips about how to make happy, healthy travel simple and fun. Does packing for a trip stress you out? Learn 10 tips to make packing quick and easy on her site www.JourneySmarts.com or follow her on facebook or pinterest.