Seattle’s Underground: More than Just a Kolchak Episode

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If you could lift off the top of the Seattle Underground, it would be as if you took off the top of a waffle and looked inside. You’d see square boxes, mostly unconnected, and a system that runs through most of downtown.

That was the ending speech given by the guide on my visit through a small part of the underground on Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour. While I enjoyed the walk-through and the thrill of being under the city, what made the experience worthwhile was the information provided by the guide.

The guide for our group of about twenty had fun with the history, detailing the history of the founding of Seattle, the sometimes infamous founding fathers (and one founding mother, a madame), and how Seattle came to even have an underground.

My main takeaways:

1. A fire caused downtown Seattle to burn to the ground in 1889. Fortunately? Why? Because the downtown was built on tidal flats which naturally caused all sorts of problems, especially with indoor plumbing and toilets. (Tides and flushing do not always go well together.) After, the decision was made to build the city up another level and have everything be made of stone or brick.

2. However, the rebuilding project took too long for some merchants, who rebuilt in three years, not the ten needed by the city elders. But the businesses built entrances on the second floors as well, for when the day came to fill in the first level.

3. So the upper city was ten feet higher in some places, meaning to go downtown, people had to use ladders. Downtown contained all the drinking establishments. At night, some people would leave these establishments and head home by using the ladders. You can imagine this did not always end well. Our guide called it the “one-step” program.

4. When it came time to bring the downtown up a level, instead of filling in the streets, they were capped, leaving the original first level hollow. The new sidewalks were supported underneath by steel beams and Roman-style arches. So far, they’ve held. So far.

5. The city had an abundance of male workers without families. It had an abundance of female sex workers as a result. But the city father’s classified the prostitutes as “seamstresses” so they could then charge a “sewing tax” on them.

6. The city’s most infamous madam’s fortune seeded the Seattle education system. (Incidentally, this woman sounds fascinating and I have to read her book.)

7. Yes, “The Night Strangler” episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker was filmed in Seattle’s catacombs. For those not familiar with the show, it’s often claimed as the influence on the later X-Files and other supernatural shows that populate our viewing today.

8. The underground is supposed to be haunted, perhaps by a miner fleeced by Jacob Furth’s bank (you can see the remains of a teller’s office in one of the photos), among others. Sadly, no strange images appeared in my photos.

9. The origin of “Skid Row” comes from the practice of cutting trees on the hills above the new city of Seattle, greasing them and “skidding” them down the streets to the sawmill at the bottom. Thus, not a great street on which to reside.

10. The “founding fathers” of Seattle seem to have been not very nice guys, so much so that Bill Spiedel (the founder of the particular tour I took) named his book Sons of the Profit after their need for the green stuff.

I’m glad I choose the underground for my first stop in my quick visit to Seattle because it gave me an appreciation for the history of the city I wouldn’t have had otherwise and enhanced the rest of the places I toured. I’d highly recommend it as the one necessary stop for anyone traveling to Seattle, especially if they only have a small amount of time.

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