Underground Seattle: The Original Pioneer Square

by José Balido

Underground Tour, Seattle, WashingtonWashington State‘s best-known city is famous for its spectacular setting and downtown attractions, including downtown’s Pioneer Square, a few blocks south of Pike Place Market. This neighborhood is known for its art galleries, restaurants and bars, boutiques, and, being the oldest district in Seattle, historic architecture. Pioneer Square was founded in the 1850s, but by a century later, what many folks had forgotten was that the original settlement was not the Pioneer Square they could see, but an even older downtown that once out of sight, slipped out of mind: underground Seattle.

Parts of 19th-century Seattle occupied tidal flats that were perfect for floods, plumbing disasters, and disease. So after a fire swept through much of the neighborhood in 1889, the city government seized the opportunity to build retaining walls, dump landfill in the streets, and raise the ground level a good eight to 35  feet (2 1/2 to 11 meters).

Meanwhile, though, many of the locals had already rebuilt on the old, low-lying level. So when the city completed its street-raising project, the entrances of many homes and businesses ended up below ground. The second stories of these buildings eventually became the new “ground floors.” And the old ground floors? Um, what ground floors?

Seedy Bars and Flophouses

Even above ground, Pioneer Square was pretty much forgotten for much of the 20th century, as it deteriorated into a low-rent district characterized by flophouses, seedy bars, and sailors looking for a good time. No, really — keep in mind this was well before Microsoft, Starbucks, and even Jimi Hendrix.

In the 1950s a local PR guy named Bill Speidel started a movement to save Pioneer Square from falling apart. He managed to get the area declared a Historic District, landlords and the city started investing in it, and Speidel began to explore the lost city that lay underground. In the 1960s he began offering tours of this hidden city, and this is how you can see it today.

UndergrndToilet-223x300.jpgLumberjacks and the Ladies

Today, US$12-$15* buys you a 90-minute stroll and a narration that can get more than a little jokey. Also more than a little blue on occasion — not too surprising considering the role prostitution played in lumberjack culture back then (for awhile, the ratio of guys to gals in Seattle was 8:1). Moreover, the Underground Tour company also offers an adults-only night tour that delves into all that a little deeper, so to speak.

Above all, this is a real trip back through time. Leaving streets where Internet geniuses and Boeing engineers slurp lattes and shop for designer shoes, you descend a staircase for a walk on century-old sidewalks past yesteryear’s stores. You see old walls, doors, tools, even bathroom fixtures. The guide shows you the former garment district where women sewed, and a hotel where, to earn a little extra money, they sowed.

Definitely spooky-cool.

*For equivalents in other currencies, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk.