One of the most uniquely-Seattle attractions we visited was the Underground Tour. Here’s the backstory: As early Seattle grew, sewage management became an increasing problem. Crude piping, inadequate sloping, and twice-daily tidal backups created unpleasant consequences (such as, poo fountains). Then came the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 which burned 25 city blocks, giving City officials an opportunity to rebuild — stronger, better, faster! <cue Six Million Dollar Man theme>
Among improvements, such as requiring brick structures and firewalls, the decision was made to raise the street level by one story to allow for improved utility piping and better drainage. Retaining walls were constructed on either side of the street, and pipes and dirt were laid within. This placed the first story of rebuilt structures below the surface of the road by 8-20 feet, accessed by descending a ladder into the trench that was created between the building façade and street retaining wall. Eventually, sidewalks were laid over those trenches and the former second floor became the “ground” floor. Those covered trenches still exist and comprise the underground tour. The drawing below illustrates what I’m talking about, except the poor slobs only had ladders, not a nice staircase to ascend.
The uncovered trenches were used for shop access for several years before sidewalks were completed. Can you imagine, to get from one side of the street to another, you had to scale a ladder (in a dress, with packages), cross the road, and descend another 20 foot ladder? Sort of inconvenient, wouldn’t you say?
The tour itself was led by a wholly entertaining guide as we wound down stairs and through tunnels that still show evidence of its history as first floor entry points. After being covered by sidewalk, they were still used for years for business both legal and not-so-legal. Skylights were placed in the sidewalk for natural lighting. You can see these photos of still-existing skylights from below and above as well as some shots from inside the tunnel tour.
Eventually, the tunnels were banned for use due to plague concerns (rats). Ewwwww. Then they were essentially used as garbage dumps until historic preservation became a thing in the 1950’s and the concept of the underground tour was born. Today, some of the businesses (such as a nearby toy store) have renovated and incorporated the tunnel section into their business. This tour is barrels of fun and definitely worth doing!
Wandering around the Pioneer Square historic district, we stumbled across the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (Seattle branch). Seattle was a major supply and launch point for those seeking their fortune during the gold rush period. It’s a free museum that describes the logistical issues and extreme hardship faced by folks on their trek to the gold fields. Fascinating, and sad.
Another day we loaded up the bicycles and headed for one of the many Seattle bicycle trails – the Burke-Gilman Trail. This heavily-used paved “rails to trails” path winds by parks, bay, and businesses. Part is wooded, part is urban, but always wide and protected. One of the parks we explored is Gas Works Park, which left remnants of a coal gasification plant and declared it to be art. That’s one way to do it! We cycled 22 miles (round trip) which was maybe half of this trail. Seattle is awesome!
And we’re not done yet ….