If you’ve been to “The Emerald City,” odds are you’ve heard rumors of something that lies just beneath the surface. No, it’s not the alligators or mole people—you’ll have to go to New York for that. But the whispers are true, at least partially; look beneath the rain-washed streets of the Pacific Northwest, and you’ll find an underground city in Seattle.
Wait, wait, wait. Don’t pack your flashlights and camera crews just yet. We aren’t actually going digging for a lost civilization or the Ark of the Covenant. You can easily access the Seattle Underground tour without tunneling below the Space Needle; there’s no spelunking or archaeology degree required. So stow your whip and fedora, Dr. Jones, and just head for Pioneer Square to begin your journey.
Millennia ago—eh, okay, in 1889—the then-logging town of Seattle suffered a catastrophic fire. That blaze went on to level some 30 blocks, and when it came time to rebuild, the good people of Washington decided flammable wooden buildings weren’t a great idea. They opted to construct “New Seattle” from brick and stone to prevent another conflagration. At the same time, the decision was made to raise the city a couple stories over the tidal flat it was built on to prevent the frequent flooding that occurred prior to the fire (really, Old Seattle had no luck).
The parts of the city that survived the fire were eventually turned into basements as new buildings were constructed atop them. Eventually, they were bricked up and forgotten…
In the 1950s, Seattle journalist and historian Bill Speidel and his wife, Shirley, worked toward restoring Pioneer Square—the old main drag of Seattle—and wound up uncovering the hidden channels beneath the streets. The first tour kicked off in 1965. Today, several companies provide Seattle underground tours, so it won’t be hard to find one that strikes your fancy.
Make sure you’ve got some comfortable shoes on, because you’ll be walking around a lot. Once you head into the catacombs, stick close to your guide—we’re pretty sure no one has ever actually vanished into the tunnels, why be the first person to break that safety record?
You’ll see an old bank vault (no gold left, sorry), the remains of saloons, and yes, a forgotten bathroom (don’t try to use it, please). The places themselves have been abandoned for over a century, though you may find bits and pieces of everyday life left behind in the darkened shells of buildings. When Seattleites made the final move to the “upper” city, many of them simply ditched old, broken, or replaceable items in the tunnels. Some of these things have been rescued and restored over the years, such as signs, cash registers, and even serving dishes. There are some skylights that let the light filter in from Pioneer Square high above, but most illumination is provided by lamps strung along the passageways.
Most tours last just over an hour, and give you plenty of time to ask questions about the space. So take your selfies, peek over the sides of the walkways, and try to contact some spirits using the ghost hunting app on your phone. Before you know it, you’ll be heading back to the surface.
Traipsing along on the Underground Seattle tour is bound to work up your appetite. Fortunately, you’ll emerge in Pioneer Square, which has food up the wazoo for you to indulge in. Try a microbrew at Collins Pub over on 2nd Avenue, or head a couple blocks southwest to Damn the Weather, a gastropub on 1st Avenue. Try the potato gnocchi—it will ruin all other gnocchi for you.
Of course, if you really want to get a feel for Seattle and its people, head north on 3rd Avenue to Pike Street, and indulge in the goodness that is the Pike Place Market, another staple of The Emerald City.
Did you have a good time? Of course you did. Ready to try something with a little more sunshine next week? Sure you are. Pack your bags and ready your credit card—in a few days, we’re headed for the shops of Third Street, Philadelphia! Stay tuned for next week’s post where we tell you all about it.