Flickr Tour of Seattle Underground
August 9, 2006 10:54 AM   Subscribe

In 1899, the core of downtown Seattle burned to the ground. While the shops quickly rebuilt & re-opened, the city itself took the opportunity to rebuild the streets some 36 feet higher than they previously had been (ostensibly to combat water pressure/sea level issues), meaning that pedestrians climbed ladders to go between street level and building entrances. Eventually, the city laid down sidewalks up on the new street level, and the underground city was all but forgotten. Today, via a building in Pioneer Square, you can still tour what remains of the abandoned underground, looking up at the people above through the opaque glass sidewalk.
posted by jonson (45 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
As featured in The Night Strangler (1973)^

On a side note: It really stinks down there, but the tour guides are usually pretty funny.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:06 AM on August 9, 2006

The fire was in 1889, not 1899.
posted by cerebus19 at 11:08 AM on August 9, 2006

Yeah, I remember this from the Night Strangler too! Never knew whether it had any basis in reality.
posted by schmedeman at 11:10 AM on August 9, 2006

"Despite the massive destruction of property, nobody died in the fire, although there were a few fatalities during the cleanup process."

posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:11 AM on August 9, 2006

oh man I miss some Pioneer Square boozing and fun. Not to mention, even back in 1994 the underground tours were pretty fantastic.

What ever happened to Triangle Billiards?
posted by Funmonkey1 at 11:26 AM on August 9, 2006

Ooo very cool. I love all this underground city kind of stuff.
posted by gomichild at 11:47 AM on August 9, 2006

posted by Drunken_munky at 12:05 PM on August 9, 2006

Oh wow... I never knew about that. Thanks for a great post. I'll check it out the next time i'm in Seattle.
posted by ramix at 12:14 PM on August 9, 2006

I took the tour about a year ago this month. It didn't smell too bad down there to me, and the tour was really informative about the town in general, not just the underground bits. Highly, highly recommended.
posted by chudmonkey at 12:23 PM on August 9, 2006

They do a night version of the underground tour where they focus on the adult side of old seattle, as well.
posted by nomisxid at 12:25 PM on August 9, 2006

Yeah, the smell isn't too bad in the summer.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:26 PM on August 9, 2006

This book is sold in the gift shop and flogged somewhat during the tour - at least the one I went on. It's an entertaining read about the founding and history of Seattle.

I don't know much about the Seattle underground, but a little further North, Victoria may or may not have tunnels, but it sure has some wacky inhabitants.

If you happen to stop by Vancouver on the way to Seattle this museum is worth a visit.

Meanwhile, the rest of the province is riddled with old and better-forgotten mines. When I was living in Nanaimo, there was an urban legend of a fellow having his basement collapse into a 250 deep mine shaft. Considering they dug all the way out to Newcastle Island (look about 1/2 way down the page) in the bay, I'm wouldn't be surprised if it's true.

If you decide to try and visit either underground tunnels or abandoned mines on your own - be very careful. You can easily die. Maybe you should just bike to one instead.
posted by concreteforest at 12:40 PM on August 9, 2006

TeLLers Cage... and SEATTLE written in all different font sizes. Why do many of the featured signs look like a child made them? did most sign makers not have hand eye coordination, or is it an attempt by the tourism industry to make it seem more rustic, somehow?
posted by wumpus at 12:40 PM on August 9, 2006

Damn, jonson-- you sure love the Seattle Underground.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 12:46 PM on August 9, 2006

I didn't realize that the people of Seattle have x-ray vision.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:47 PM on August 9, 2006

Damn, jonson-- you sure love the Seattle Underground.

I really do. I love the off the beaten path aspect of major cities, as well as visible artifacts of the history of a city. When I first mentioned the Underground, Flickr didn't yet exist; it occurred to me to go scrounging around for pix, and a post was born.
posted by jonson at 12:54 PM on August 9, 2006

I, too, enjoy the Seattle Underground. Good post.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 12:55 PM on August 9, 2006

concreteforest, I'm from Victoria... Locals of Victoria are very imaginative when it comes to the tunnels. It seems as soon as one of those forum members finds a tunnel entrance, their cameras stop working, and by the time anyone else gets around to confirming it, the entrance has been mysteriously walled up.
I'm pretty sure local Victorians just smoke too much pot.
posted by wumpus at 12:56 PM on August 9, 2006

As a side note, Terry Pratchett explicitly references this aspect of Seattle in The Truth.

[this is good]
posted by scrump at 1:01 PM on August 9, 2006

concreteforest, not to detract from your worthwhile warning, but the four people who died in you e"easily" link were above ground, in a shed.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:09 PM on August 9, 2006

I did the tour. The actual stuff underground was not that interesting, basically being a bunch of basements. However, the history lesson was great.
posted by caddis at 1:09 PM on August 9, 2006

I took the tour a couple years ago and it was surprisingly entertaining. I really liked the sense of humor which I wasn't expecting from a historical tour.
posted by Sloben at 1:10 PM on August 9, 2006


This is one of my favorite aspects of the city.

Before the last earthquake the Underground was a little more thrilling. The guides are always entertaining. Ask them about the Whore houses and Madams that essentially funded building Seattle. Great stuff.
posted by tkchrist at 1:16 PM on August 9, 2006

Seattle's neighbor to the south has its own underground. Sticking with the general theme of the relationship ours was always only for seedy purposes.
posted by togdon at 1:26 PM on August 9, 2006

This is the biggest scam on earth - whoever invented the "underground" tour is brilliant (and a millionnaire).

I lived in the Prudential building, 114 Alaskan Way, right in the middle of the tour. They take rats out of the undergrounds every day around 7am. Then they send tourists back in.
posted by dblock at 1:43 PM on August 9, 2006

So which part is the scam? That they take the rats out?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:46 PM on August 9, 2006

That they let the tourists out?
posted by pracowity at 1:49 PM on August 9, 2006

The Seattle regrading in the early 20th century was another amazing public works project. It was done, according to this National Park Service article, to level the steep hills that were blocking the city's expansion. Scroll to the bottom to see an incredible photo that illustrates the scope of the regrading. Downtown Seattle is still very hilly, BTW.

The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce did an article about it that includes a great, but small, photo.

Seattle Times article on regrading.

I took the tour about 30 years ago, and like caddis, I enjoyed the historical info better than the actual underground stuff. If the tour's a scam, it's just continuing the tradition started by the city's founders, according to the guide, who did indeed make frequent references to "Sons of the Profits," the book concreteforest referred to.
posted by diddlegnome at 1:56 PM on August 9, 2006

Wow, I love this stuff. Great post (give that man his $30 already!).
posted by languagehat at 2:10 PM on August 9, 2006

The reason "Sons of the Profits" is so closely tied to the Seattle underground tour is that Bill Spiedel, who wrote the book, also founded the underground tour (and is therefore the major source of the amusing and informative tour information).

It's interesting to contrast Speidel's book with Murray Morgan's Skid Road. It's been years since I read either, but my impression was that Murray was much "straighter" (he was a journalist and amateur historian; my wife took his Washington State History class in the 70s at Tacoma Community College) and Speidel was much more irreverent. They tell the same story from two completely different points of view.
posted by lhauser at 2:16 PM on August 9, 2006

I took the tour when I first moved to Seattle in 1987. I really don't remember much except for two things; the tour guide asked who was a "local" and I sheepishly acknowledged that I was, and that the place was uniformly filthy.

For tourists, I would recommend Boeing Surplus over the Seattle Underground in a heartbeat.
posted by Tube at 2:28 PM on August 9, 2006

No more triangle billiards. No more Fenix Underground, either. It closed up shop last month.

I work in Pioneer Square, and every day I see these tours go by. If you walk out of the front door of my office building, either way you go you'll walk over the sidewalk/skylights.

There are many other fun things to do in Pioneer Square. But I recommend bringing me beers. I'm at 101 Yesler Way, suite 600, middle office.
posted by mattoly at 2:43 PM on August 9, 2006

concreteforest, not to detract from your worthwhile warning, but the four people who died in your "easily" link were above ground, in a shed.

Yes I know - I chose that example to show the sometimes unique dangers of exploring an industrial area, even if it seems undisturbed. These guys died in a shed that wasn't even underground in a mine that was regularly visited.
posted by concreteforest at 3:04 PM on August 9, 2006

I didn't realize that the people of Seattle have x-ray vision.
C'mon, Crabby -- don't be so opaque.
posted by forrest at 3:33 PM on August 9, 2006

diddlegnome: holy shit!
posted by keswick at 3:46 PM on August 9, 2006

Sorry, forrest, I thought it was at least translucent.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:16 PM on August 9, 2006

So why can't they do that in new Orleans?
posted by baylink at 7:28 PM on August 9, 2006

Something else that's fun and underground near Seattle.

The 2.3 mile tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass is bikable or hikable and it's entirely straight and pitch black. For an hour, you walk in a straight line, towards a tiny, tiny point of light that slowly gets larger until you're on the other side of the mountain.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:48 PM on August 9, 2006

Sacramento has a similar story.
posted by lekvar at 9:57 PM on August 9, 2006

I took this tour when I was in Seattle. The tour itself was pretty cool, but the tour guide was AWFUL.

Seriously, she was like the worst 80s stand-up comedian that you can imagine. I just wanted to be like, "Shut up or tell me the history, but for gods sake, NO MORE JOKES!" Really, it was that bad.

I've heard that the other tour guide is much better.

(To her credit, I think she had to draw it out a bit because the tour itself is pretty short)
posted by Afroblanco at 10:47 PM on August 9, 2006

And speaking of tunnels...
"After 40 years' burrowing, Mole Man of Hackney is ordered to stop"
(via The Guardian)

posted by blueberry at 10:59 PM on August 9, 2006

Well, if you're interested in even more NW history, check out Stewart Holbrook's Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks...
posted by black8 at 12:59 AM on August 10, 2006

I propose some sort of Seattle Undeground MeFi Meetup, although I have no real idea how to accomplish this.
posted by mwhybark at 9:56 PM on August 10, 2006

And suddenly I understand why my shot of the Teller's Cage has had so many views. Heh. Thanks for the link!

Personally, I'm a big fan of the Underground tour. I tend to go on it about once a year, whenever I find someone who hasn't gone on the tour yet. To me, it's a fun and pleasantly irreverent look at some of the odder parts of Seattle history, and I've not yet gotten quite the same collection of information twice. The basics are the same, sure, but each tour guide (and there are far more than just two) seems to focus on different bits of detail and trivia that they like to point out.
posted by djwudi at 9:38 AM on August 14, 2006

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