Monday, April 29, 2013

Underneath Seattle

What was I doing underneath Seattle, you ask? Why, taking the famed Underground Tour, of course. I love history. My grandfather was a history teacher and passed his love of the past onto my mother. The four of us kids grew up pickled in the stuff and now those of us who are parents are busy passing the history bug onto another hapless generation.

When I heard that there was a historical district to Seattle and some kind of underground tour of the original downtown, I put it on my must-see list. Pioneer Square is right next to the train station, so on our last day, Caleb and I walked over there while we waited for our departure time.

We couldn't find it at first, and a true Kahrs to the end, I hated to ask for directions. But at last, driven to desperation by hunger, we went to Subway and while ordering asked where we could find the Underground tour. Oh, the bitterness. We were right across the street from it---if I had turned around at the door I would have seen it and never had stoop to asking someone else.

We scarfed our sandwiches and hurried across the street just in time to join the group that was forming. The tour begins in a beautifully restored barroom where the tour guide gives the background of Seattle and how there came to be an underground.

It all had to do with toilets and fire. No, really, that's why. The original founders of the town were interested in a quick buck, not metropolis building. The industry of the town was logging, and downtown was built right at the tide line for ease of floating logs away and unloading cargo. The only problem was that this made it impossible to build a working sewer system. Before toilets, high tide would float out all the outhouses, and after toilets, high tide would cause a pressure backup that would shoot geysers up the backs of the unexperienced. The experienced knew that high tide meant "Hold it."

This went on for a number of years, only getting worse as Seattle grew. But then one day, a civic-minded immigrant named John Back burnt the downtown to the ground in 12 hours. He worked in a cabinet maker's shop and was heating glue that boiled over, igniting the wood chips and turpentine covering the floor. It might not have been so bad if the fire hadn't spread to all the saloons choking the area. Fueled by alcohol, the fire raged out of control.

Amazingly, when the smoke cleared, no loss of human life was reported, but it is said that up to 1 million rats perished in the flames. The fire turned out to be an opportunity to fix the mistakes of Seattle's first hasty construction. Obviously, the downtown area would have to be raised and sea walls put in.

But the city of Seattle put a time estimate of 10 years on the project. All the sad little business owners said "No way!", and started rebuilding at the original levels immediately. The downtown was rebuilt in 3 years. However, knowing that the level of the streets would eventually be raised, they built a main entrance on their ground floors, and another main entrance on their second floors. Good thinking, because the city was working hard to raise the streets.

Dirt was washed down from the bluffs above, filling retaining walls and making streets that were 10-30 feet higher than ground level. This was an awkward time. To shop, you had to climb down a ladder to reach the store. If you wanted to shop across the street, you had to climb back up, cross the street, and climb down again on the other side. Besides all that hassle, barrels would occasionally fall off the street and crush the shoppers below. Not good for business and the people demanded action from the city.

A "temporary" fix was put in place---what were essentially brick bridges joining the street level to the second stories of the buildings. The plan was to fill in the space underneath, but somehow the city never got around to it. Shopkeepers continued to use the space for commerce, even putting skylights in the sidewalks (some of which can still be seen today). In 1907 the space was condemned after bubonic plague was discovered in the passageways. The once-busy sidewalks were abandoned to Vice and Corruption

Eventually, even Vice and Corruption got tired of it down there, and the Underground was largely forgotten until the 60's when the downtown area was restored. Portions of the Underground were cleaned out and made safe for the tours that have continued to this day.

After our introduction to the area's history, our group trundled outside and across the street. We entered the Underground through this unmarked door and down a narrow stairway.

Underneath the buildings is private property, but Underground Tours pays for permission to use certain portions of it as access. The sidewalk passageways are city property and are used to run utilities. We gathered in a dimly lit room for more fascinating information from Tour Guide Dave before continuing.

The walk ways are rugged and uneven. Artifacts from Seattle's past lurk in the dark corners. (Or they were carefully placed there by the tour to give ambiance. Whatever. It LOOKS authentic.) The whole experience has a deliciously adventurous feel to it.

I was enjoying myself SO much. I love breathing in the atmosphere of past generations (or was that mildew?). If there really were time machines, I would so get one!

After exploring one side of the street, we had to go back up to street level to get to the other side. Those same pesky retaining walls are still there! The other side of the street had some of the original banking facade, complete with teller's stall. When the Yukon gold rush occurred, all of that gold came pouring into Seattle. And Seattle did its best to see that it stayed there. Lots of---shall we say---"cottage industries" sprang up, run by entrepreneurial-spirited women.

There was lots more information along those lines, but I will spare you the details. You will have to go and take the tour yourself to find out. The whole experience was loads of fun and if I ever return to Seattle, I will definitely be taking the tour again.

And again.

And again.

I will be a tour stalker. I'm sure they are used to them.

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