February 28, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Photos From The Secret City Underneath Seattle


The Buried City

There’s a secret hiding underneath Seattle’s Pioneer Square. A remnant of another time, left to crumble to dust. A city beneath the city. Today, it’s called the Seattle Underground. Before 1889, it would have been just “Seattle".

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It Was Built Of Wood

That now-buried version of Seattle, the original Seattle, was, to put it plainly, in a terrible place for a city. It was subject to rampant floods and treacherously vulnerable to fire.

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA - 2008Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

It Went Up In Flames

It was only a matter of time before 19th-century Seattle faced disaster, and it came in 1899 with the Great Seattle Fire—but from the ashes, city planners decided to fix the glaring problems with the Emerald City’s layout.

Aftermath of the Seattle fire of June 6, 1889, at 1st Ave. and Cherry St. - 1900Seattle photographs collection, Picryl

They Buried The Past

They came up with an extremely ambitious plan, and in doing so, they created the Underground, an eerie remnant of the city as it once was.

Commercial Street looking north - After the great fire, Seattle, June 6, 1889Seattle photographs collection, Picryl

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The Wood Rush

Seattle was founded as a hub to ship the abundant lumber of the Pacific Northwest down south to California. The area had vast, coniferous forests and a natural harbor. 

It was the perfect place to set up a port—but for a city? That was another question.

Predating the settlement that became the city of Seattle, the Duwamish - 1880Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) Seattle, Picryl

Yeslerville

Henry Yesler built a lumber mill between Puget Sound and Lake Washington in 1852, effectively putting Seattle on the map. But it wasn't exactly the kind of land where you'd want to build a city. It was barely above sea-level.

Henry Yesler, Mayor of Seattle - circa 1875Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

It Flooded Constantly

While Seattle's location wasn't necessarily a bad thing for shipping lumber, it came with some major problems: most notably, the floods that frequently swept through the fledgling city. 

Original Skid Road Seattle - 1874Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Buildings Levelled Up

Many buildings in early Seattle stood on wooden stilts that protected them from the waters that frequently washed through downtown.

Original Skid Road Seattle - 1874Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

When Life Gives You Wood...

Like the lofty stilts, almost everything in pioneer Seattle was made of wood. When life gives you lemons, and all that… Wooden buildings, wooden walkways, wooden bridges—they even hollowed out scrap logs and used them for sewage and water pipes.

Wooden houses in Second Avenue businesses, Seattle - 1890Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) Seattle, Picryl

It Was A Matter Of Time

Seattle was essentially built out of kindling. It was only a matter of time before it went up in flames—and that day came on June 6, 1889.

First Avenue South and Main Street, looking northeast, Seattle - 1883National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Picryl

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Safety Last

An apprentice carpenter put a pot of glue on the stove and promptly forgot about it. The glue eventually boiled over and caught fire…in a room full of sawdust, woodchips, and turpentine. The building went up in flames in minutes.

Workers and equipment, Seattle -  between 1900 and 1910University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

He Made It Way Worse

When the apprentice noticed the blaze he’d started, he panicked and threw a bucket of water on the flames. Turns out, it was the worst thing he could have done.

Man filling a bucket with water - 1900sLibrary of Congress, Picryl

The Flames Spread

It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but all the water did was thin out the turpentine. As the turpentine spilled into the room's nooks and crannies, the fire spread alongside it.

Start Of The Seattle Fire Of June 6, 1889, Looking South On 1St AveUniversity of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

They Laid Out The Red Carpet

On that day, pioneer Seattle's flammability became dangerously clear. The wooden boardwalks—built so that pedestrians could avoid mud from the constant floods—provided the perfect avenue for the fire to spread from building to building.

Aftermath Of The Seattle Fire Of June 6, Showing Train Tracks - 1889University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

It Kept Getting Worse

It seemed like everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The city’s fire chief happened to be out of town that night, so he wasn’t on hand to direct firefighting efforts. 

Post St, Seattle - 1889John P. Soule, Wikimedia Commons

They Had No Clue What They Were Doing

Rather than professionals taking charge, inexperienced volunteers attempted to use too many hoses at once, draining all of the water pressure. They might as well have been squirting the flames with a water pistol.

Start of the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, looking south on 1st Ave. near Madison St.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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It Burned All Night

The Great Seattle Fire raged all night, finally coming under control on the morning of June 7. By that time, 25 city blocks were in ashes. The business district, four wharves, and all of the city's railroad terminals were destroyed. The damage was estimated to be around $20 million (around $560 million today).

Start Of The Great Seattle Fire -  1889University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

It Got Rid Of The Rats

On the bright side, the loss of life was nowhere near the loss of property. Only one person was actually killed in the fire, a young boy named James. What’s more, the fire is estimated to have killed more than a million rodents, effectively solving Seattle’s pest problem. Small victories, I guess.

Rats on the ground.Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

They Had A Big Plan

When leaders planned the city's new infrastructure, they kept their past mistakes in mind. This time, they weren’t going to make their city a tinderbox. But why stop at fireproofing? The destruction of Seattle also gave them room to fix the city’s serious flooding problem. Two birds. One stone.

Aftermath Of The Seattle Fire Of June 6 - 1889University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

Seattle Levelled Up

First, city planners mandated that all new buildings be built out of brick and stone, but more importantly, they were going to regrade the entire area destroyed by the fire to be above sea-level. This was no small change. All of the streets were to be raised about 12 feet, though it could be up to 30 feet in some particularly low-lying spots.

Tents At Second Ave And Madison St After Great Fire, July 1899John P. Soule, Wikimedia Commons

It Was A Strange Place

This massive regrade was going to take time, which meant that Seattle was a pretty bizarre place to live for a few years. For a while, streets and walkways were at the “new” ground level, but shop entrances were 12 feet down, meaning you’d have to climb down a ladder off the sidewalk to enter a building.

1St Ave, Seattle - 1889University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

It Wasn't Great For Window Shopping

Shop owners and landlords also knew that the second floors of their new buildings would eventually be the ground floor. They mostly left the first-floors completely unadorned, while thoroughly decorating the second-floors. For a while, you’d approach a building and it would seem like its storefront hung 12 feet up in the air.

Seattle Underground - 2005Postdlf, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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They Abandoned The Underground 

Once the regrade was done, owners abandoned the first floors of their buildings and the city paved over the walkways in front of them, officially creating the Seattle Underground.

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA - 2008Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Sealed It Off

This remnant of the previous ground-level still saw some use for a couple decades but in 1907, it was finally condemned out of fear that it was helping to spread the bubonic plague. The Underground was left to rot.

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA - 2008Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Seattle Had A Literal Underbelly

As with many abandoned spaces in cities, the Underground morphed into the haunt of people outside of Seattle’s polite society. It quite literally became the city’s seedy underbelly. 

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA - 2008Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Even That Disappeared

For years, the Seattle Underground was home to many flophouses, opium dens, gambling halls, and speakeasies, though eventually, even these faded into memory.

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA - 2008Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

It Collected Dust

As the years passed, the Seattle Underground saw less and less use, until it was almost completely forgotten. But in the 1960s, a local eccentric named Bill Speidel saw untapped potential in the strange spectacle of the Underground's buried streets and buildings.

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA - 2008Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Bill Speidel Revived The Underground

In 1965, Speidel created “Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour,” reigniting interest in this bizarre piece of Seattle’s history.

Bill Speidel - 1979Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

He Cared About Seattle

Around this time, much of Pioneer Square (the neighborhood that houses the underground), was under threat of development, and Speidel saw the Underground as an opportunity to preserve the beloved streets and buildings. 

Eventually, he helped get half a million signatures to save Pioneer Square.

Seattle Underground, a former meat market - 2005Postdlf, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Go Visit!

Speidel was successful in his preservation efforts. Pioneer Square and the Seattle Underground are still there today, serving as a major draw for tourists. Speidel’s tours are still going, giving tourists a glimpse into this particular quirk of Seattle's history.

Seattle Underground Tour - 2011John Biehler, Flickr


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