In 1889, a fire raged through the fledgling city, razing much of the wood buildings in the business district. The blaze was widely attributed to a careless worker heating glue over a gas fire, catching the furnishings and floor on fire in a cabinetry shop. Founded on the logging industry, most of the original city was built of wood and little survived the flames that destroyed 31 blocks.
In the wake of the fire, new building ordinances required building from stone and brick; in the process of rebuilding, the decision was made to raise the city streets out of the swampy grounds. Retaining walls were added alongside the streets and filled to make new roads. Shops and businesses that had already rebuilt found the first and sometimes second stories of their buildings facing a concrete wall, the new street several feet above. Eventually, new sidewalks were added at street height, and the underground largely forgotten–left to opium addicts, prostitutes, and gangsters.
In the 1950s, Seattle local Bill Speidel began a campaign to save the neglected Pioneer Square area, largely on the strength of the story of the underground city. He began giving guided tours in 1965, and his company continues these today. Since then, rival tours have cropped up, each offering a slightly different take on the underground.
Visitors can join a guided walking tour beneath Seattle’s sidewalks and streets, exploring the subterranean passages that once were the main roadways and first-floor storefronts of old downtown Seattle. The guides relay stories of the city’s colorful and sordid past. The tours walk through three blocks of the underground, including an old saloon, shopfronts, and a hotel.
Know Before You Go
The original Bill Speidel tour departs from Doc Maynard’s Public House in Pioneer Place Park. Look for the glass and cast-iron pergola, a cable-car stop built in 1909, and the huge totem pole.