When we were talking to some of our friends about our trip to Seattle, they told us that we HAD to get tickets for the Seattle Underground Tour. We didn’t really understand what that meant, but we obediently booked that tour for the last day of our trip. It wasn’t until our first walking tour, where we heard the story of the Great Seattle Fire that we understood just what the Underground Tour would entail. The story goes like this (the photos are from the Seattle Free Walking Tour and the Seattle Underground Tour. We saw different parts of this through both tours). In 1889, a carpentry apprentice was melting down some wood glue to be used in the shop. He got distracted and the glue overflowed into the fire, and a series of events that would burn down 33 blocks in Seattle was put into motion. Today, you can see the original site of the fire and the memorial they constructed to the fire.
After the fire, which miraculously killed no one, the people of Seattle realized that rebuilding with wood was a really bad idea. They were also really keen to do something about all of the plumbing and sewer issues they were having because the city was so close to sea level. So, they decided to build all of the buildings so that the second floor would become the entry floor eventually. They raised the streets first to install new plumbing that would flow down and not back up with the tide. They knocked down 2 of the original hills of Seattle for the fill dirt to raise the streets. While this was happening, there were ladders at each corner so people could climb up to cross the street and down to get to the entrances of shops. Here is a drawing of what that looked like along with a photo of the building our tour started in and photos of the underground first floor of that building today. I am also including a photo of a building that was constructed at that time to have the entrance on the second level, but then they ran out of hill to knock down, so the street was only raised about a foot, making the door on the bottom floor very short and the intended main entrance very high.
After the roads were all raised, the sidewalks were built over to the main entrances of the buildings. The underground remained – and sometimes still remains – intact underneath, which was actually quite convenient if it happened to be raining – you could go to several stores on the same block without going outside. They used manganese glass to make skylights to light the underground space. After a few years of sun exposure, the glass turned purple, so you will still see some purple glass in the sidewalks as you walk around Seattle.
It was really cool to walk around under the sidewalks. There were lots of stories, but I don’t want to ruin the tour. I did find it really fascinating that businesses could use their underground spaces for whatever they like. Some use it for retail or restaurant/bar space while some use it to store things leftover from renovations. One of my favorite things we saw underground was this elevator gear.
The tour ends at a little Seattle history museum with lots of photos of Seattle founders and important people. It was really interesting and I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone that wants to get a unique perspective on Seattle’s history. Our tour guide also had a really great sense of humor, so he made it super enjoyable to learn about plumbing and construction.
Have you ever taken an Underground Tour in Seattle? What did you think? Let us know in the comments. 🙂