For my birthday this year, I treated myself to a Seattle Beneath the Streets tour. I’m so glad I did, because this tour, in its current form, at least, won’t be around much longer. More and more of the underground alleys are being closed off for gentrification. They’ll soon turn into slick underground malls, and they’ll lose all sense of history. That will be a huge cultural loss for this town.
Seattle is unique in that its ground level is not where it once was. Particularly in the area of Pioneer Square, which used to be, basically, swampland, the land has been filled in and (comparatively speaking) levelled. In some cases, the ground is 30 or 40 feet higher than it once was. So most of the buildings you see actually have at least one story that is beneath the current sidewalk.
The fascinating thing is that the original sidewalks are still there. Here’s what happened: The fire in 1889 gave the city the chance to re-level and rebuild the streets. Oddly, they didn’t work on the sidewalks at the same time. (Go figure.) So the sidewalks and their associated store fronts now found themselves beneath street level. This quickly became a problem as people, usually while intoxicated, were known to fall off the road to their deaths. Of course, drainage was an issue as well. So they covered over the sidewalks, basically turning them into tunnels. This is why you see so many skylights in the sidewalks around Pioneer Square. Even with them, though, it must have been pretty dark down there.
Here are some pictures I took of the skylights. Some of them look circular from the sidewalk, but are actually prismatic from below, to take advantage of what little light there was. These same prisms were used in ship holds to increase the light.
Over time, the nice shops that used to reside in these places moved elsewhere, seeking daylight, and the underground alleys became the home of speakeasies, gambling, opium dens, and prostitution. Prohibition, in particular, made this area quite popular. Loggers, miners and sailors could do their illegal and unmentionable things away from the public eye. That was kind of a win/win for Seattle, because it depended on this income, but also didn’t really want to look at its seedier side.
I love that Seattle’s history, as well as it’s infrastructure, has multiple layers, like an onion. If you get a chance to take the Beneath the Streets Tour, do it now, while you still can!
Here are some photos of parts of underground Seattle that you can no longer see. This is what we’ll soon be missing. This is what was.